Students start lining up for lunch as early as 10:30 a.m. at Cook Elementary School, where 965 pupils are crammed into a school meant for 545.
Lunch is done in shifts over a three-hour period so the children can fit into the cafeteria, part of the creative use of space that becomes necessary when more than 40 percent of the school’s classes are held in portable buildings. Dismissal is another multipart drill, with teachers serving as traffic cops while coordinated waves of students head to their parents’ cars or walk home. If everyone tried to leave at the same time, they would have gridlock.
“This is the real world of having more kids than we have room,” said Paul Turner, the district’s executive director of facilities. Cook, located in North Austin, is one of the most crowded campuses in the Austin school district.
Relief could come as early as this summer if voters approve an $883 million bond that trustees likely will put on the May ballot. The school board’s vote on whether to call for the election is scheduled for Monday. The bond would cost the owner of an average-value home — $244,500 after exemptions — an extra $86 a year. It would pay for an array of improvements including three new schools and multiple classroom additions. Cook would get 10 new classrooms, a new cafeteria and a new gym.
This school bond would be the biggest ever attempted in Central Texas, larger than the last two Austin school bonds combined.
It is also likely to play before one of the smallest audiences. Just 2.5 percent of voters turned out in 2010 for the last time a school board election was held in May instead of the fall.
Trustees have been waiting more than two years for the right time to hold the election, and they postponed it last fall because other government entities were also asking residents for money.
Had they opted for November, school officials believe they would have had a greater risk of failure on a ballot already laden witha $385 million bond for city projects and a property tax increase that will generate $54 million a year for a medical school and health care projects.
“The best time to do this is now,” said John Blazier, an Austin lawyer and a member of the district’s bond advisory committee. “When we stand here alone, taxpayers can look at it.”
The stakes are high, and even the opposition — some of whom have criticized the district’s plans to build new schools even as some campuses remain underenrolled — agrees that waiting until May was a savvy move.
“The politicians have seen that if they spoon-feed taxpayers with one tax increase at a time, taxpayers will not notice and object to the total cost,” said Bill Aleshire, an Austin lawyer and a former Travis County judge.
After a busy November, Don Zimmerman of the Travis County Taxpayers Union said he doesn’t yet have the resources for much of an opposition campaign.
“Many of us think they are very poor stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Zimmerman said. “The only option the district gives you is to support their management and their agenda and their policy, or you are labeled as someone who doesn’t like children or education.”
The bond proposal comes in light of deep state funding cuts to public education that school districts have been grappling with in the past two years. Faced with the same shortfall as other districts in Texas, Austin school officials cut programs and slashed more than 1,100 jobs. Austin also kept maintenance spending to a minimum and will likely go back to voters in the near future for a tax increase to pay for school employee raises, among other things.
Much of the bond proposal is for upkeep of the district’s aging facilities, which average just over 40 years old, plus money for three new schools and campus additions in high-growth areas. District officials point to floors, lockers and ventilation systems that haven’t been replaced in years.
This bond proposal — and the bond packages of recent years — aim to address problems that often stretch back for decades. While some districts seek approval for new bond packages as often as every three or four years, the Austin district has let more time lapse between bonds, and the needs kept growing for maintenance and repair, district officials say.
“We have a tremendous deferred maintenance bill,” Blazier said.
Trustee Lori Moya, at a recent meeting to discuss the bond proposal, said the district needs to find ways to stay on top of maintenance, “so we don’t have this pile on us at one time.”
“Some of these things should have never gotten to this point,” she said.
Other urban districts have asked for large amounts recently, too. Houston voters approved a $1.9 billion measure in November, much of it to address dilapidated buildings. In the Dallas school district, voters have approved two $1.3 billion bond packages in the past decade.
The Austin bond package would eliminate about 16 percent of the district’s 630 portable buildings and address other needs that vary from campus to campus.
At Govalle Elementary, a 73-year-old school, white flakes of insulation fall from the gym ceiling that make parents wince and wonder what the children are inhaling.
The stuffy weight room at Travis High School needs an air conditioner.
Band students are practicing in the hallways of Murchison Middle School; the band hall was built for just over 200 students, but about 500 students are involved in band.
Everywhere, computers and other technology chug along slowly, needing upgrades.
Even with the bond money, not all needs will be met. Principal and department wish lists totaled $1.3 billion.
So, even while the district will reduce its number of portable buildings, some schools, like Zilker Elementary, will keep all of theirs.
Zilker, however, is slated to get a new gym, music room and a multipurpose room.
Seeking informed voters
May turnout might be low for school elections, but those who show up are high-participation voters who are well informed, said political consultant Mark Littlefield, who has worked on numerous city and district campaigns.
In the May 2010 Austin trustee election, turnout was 9,463 voters, or 2.52 percent.
Littlefield said those who vote are going to have a compelling reason, and a majority will be the parents of students in the district.
“This is the most sophisticated, informed electorate we have,” Littlefield said. “The good news for AISD is the majority of these voters care about Austin (and) AISD, and that should bode well for the district.”
Littlefield said, for such a bond to succeed, it needs to have a little something for everyone — from athletics to arts — but the entire package cannot grow so large that voters choke on the amount.
Bond advocates said they don’t know what would happen if taxpayers turn down one or all the proposals at the booth. To not have these needs met would be “horrific,” Blazier said.
“It’d be an absolute disaster for our children and our community,” said Blazier, who has an elementary school named for him. “The repair maintenance has to be done, and there’s no money to do it. We have schools that are extraordinarily overcrowded; we have to fix that.”
Aleshire, the former Travis County judge, predicts the bond will pass because “voters just aren’t fed up yet with the rising cost of living in Austin.”
The bond is planned to appear on the ballot as four separate propositions.
This week, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce gave its conditional support. Its conditions include: that the district dedicate $85 million of the bond toward technology improvements (the package has $76 million); that the district ensure additional schools won’t be built until all of the schools combined are operating at 95 percent of their total capacity for students, administrators and support staff; and that the money is available to operate the schools within a balanced budget.
Proposed bond package
On Monday, the Austin school board will decide whether to put on the May ballot an $883 million bond package that includes:
• $349.2 million for building renovations, repairs and improvements.
• $232.4 million for safety and security upgrades and relief from overcrowding, including three new elementary schools and additions to seven other schools.
• $166 million for academic programs, fine arts and athletics, including $20 million to renovate the Alternative Learning Center to house the School for Young Men, an all-boys school scheduled to open in 2014.
• $135.6 million for health, environment, equipment and technology, including maintenance.
What it would cost homeowners
The tax impact of the school district’s $883 million bond issue would vary for homeowners and property owners, depending on assessed values.
For a $100,000 home, the bond would increase school district taxes by $29.75 to $1,085.45 annually.
For a $200,000 home, the bond would increase school district taxes by $64.75 to $2,362.45.
For a $250,000 home, the bond would increase school district taxes by $82.25 to $3,000.95.
For a $300,000 home, the bond would increase school district taxes by $99.75 to $3,639.45.
For a $400,000 home, the bond would increase school district taxes by $134.75 to $4,916.45