A political action committee supporting the Austin district’s school bonds has raised $186,000 to lobby voters to approve the $1.1 billion bond measure, with substantial support from the city’s business community, especially those in the building trade.
The Committee for Austin’s Children PAC has spent about $76,000 on flyers, direct mailers, yard signs and a poll that gauged public support for the bonds. This week, organizers plan a mailing blitz on why voters should support the measure, and if funds continue to come in, the group plans to take out TV ads.
The pro-bond group’s fundraising dwarfs that of its opposition, which has raised about $5,000.
“Anytime you have a bond election, you’re going to have to spend some money to convey what’s in it and how it’s going to better the situation,” said David Butts, political consultant for the pro-bond group. “You have to be out there because the opposition is out there. The opposition’s main weapon is to create doubt. They don’t have to prove anything. All they have to say is ‘they’re wasting our money.’
“We have to push back on that.”
Early voting starts next week for the single-proposition bond measure. Bond funds are slated to rebuild several campuses, construct new schools and make hundreds of improvements districtwide.
Fewer than 40,000 voters cast ballots in the school district’s 2013 bond election, when half of the funding the district sought was rejected. Butts said the group is trying to reach a wider audience this time, hoping between 60,000 and 70,000 voters turn up at the polls.
About $84,000 in donations for the Austin’s Children PAC have come from corporations or labor organizations, according to the latest campaign finance reports. The largest donor was Ascension Health, the parent of the Seton Healthcare Family, which gave $25,000.
Greg Hartman, Seton’s president of external affairs and network support services, is also the treasurer for the Austin Children’s PAC. Hartman said Seton has made contributions to other area school bond campaigns and said he asked Seton’s leadership to make a significant donation to Austin’s.
“We think these community investment efforts are important,” Hartman said. “We’re a nonprofit, but when we have things that have a direct impact to the community, we do give to that.”
Another $32,000 has been pledged from other businesses and organizations.
A key selling point is that while this would be the district’s largest school bond ever, the plan for repaying the money will not lead to an increase in the tax rate. District officials project that increasing property values, along with retiring old debt, will provide the money to cover bond repayment. Homeowners can still expect to pay more in property taxes, as values continue to rise.
Opponents have criticized the sources of the donations, saying donors such as architects and builders stand to benefit if the bond plan passes.
“I feel like it’s a pro-developer bond,” said Bertha Delgado, president of the grass-roots group Save East Austin Schools.
The group’s members oppose the bond measure because they don’t think funds are being distributed equitably to schools educating high populations of low-income and ethnic minority students and because they want to prevent the closure of campuses on the east side, among other reasons.
“It’s just a big disappointment to see these big companies are trying to push this bond through,” Delgado said. “This bond is really not about the children.”
The Save East Austin Schools political action committee received its first donations Wednesday night, after the filing deadline. The group has raised less than $500, with donations coming from East Austin community members, Delgado said.
The Travis County Taxpayers Union, which also is opposed to the bond measure, raised $5,000 in a single donation.
Committee for Austin’s Children PAC largest donations
$25,000 — Ascension (Seton)
$10,000 — Andrews Kurth Texas PAC (law firm)
$10,000 — Education Austin PAC (district employees’ labor group)
$10,000 — Greater Austin Economic Development Corp. (Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce)
$5,000 — ABC Home & Commercial Services
$5,000 — American Constructors
$5,000 — Austin Board of Realtors
$5,000 — Austin Goodnight Ranch LP
$5,000 — Heritage Title Company of Austin, Inc.
$5,000 — Martin Burger, vice president of American Constructors
$5,000 — ERO Architects
$5,000 — Pape-Dawson Engineers
$5,000 — Perry Lorenz, Austin developer
$5,000 — Pfluger Associates LP, Texas architecture firm
$5,000 — Walsh Gallegos Treviño Russo & Kyle PC law firm
Largest pledged contributions
$10,000 — Ann Richards Foundation
$10,000 — Stratus Properties, real estate developer
$8,000 — Lyft Inc.
Travis County Taxpayers Union PAC largest donation
$5,000 — Jim Skaggs, retired tech executive