The Austin school board, campaigning for an $892 million bond package — the largest ever attempted by a Central Texas district — has gained key support from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
The board has called a special meeting Monday to vote on a resolution that commits to adding a layer of oversight to the bond spending. The resolution also commits to address underenrollment at some campuses — a move aimed, at least in part, to appease chamber leaders who have raised concerns about schools that are close to half-empty.
But after recent talks with the district, the chamber leaders appear satisfied that those matters can be resolved. On Thursday, the chamber’s board voted unanimously to support the bond package, without conditions.
“We trust their word,” Don Kendrick, the chamber’s chairman for education, said in a statement.
Last month, the chamber gave lukewarm support to the bond package, which will be the subject of a May 11 election. The chamber’s conditional support required at least $85 million in technology upgrades to the bond package, amendment of the strategic plan to ensure new schools won’t be built unless the district has a balanced budget and the revenue to operate them, the district’s commitment that additional schools won’t be built until all of the schools combined are operating at 95 percent capacity, and approval of a facility master plan to ensure new schools won’t be built unless no single campus has an enrollment of less than 65 percent of its functional capacity.
Before calling for the election, trustees last month approved increasing the bond amount designated for technology by $9 million to hit the $85 million mark.
But solving the issue of underenrolled schools might be trickier. Some of the district’s schools are substantially underenrolled, at less than 65 percent. Districtwide functional capacity, which includes the use of portables, sits at 89 percent. Elementary schools have a functional capacity of 94 percent, middle schools are at 80 percent and high schools are at 88 percent. The resolution does not spell out how the district will fix the problem.
The board already has decided to shutter Allan Elementary, currently being used by IDEA Public Schools, this fall, but talk of other school closures in previous years was resisted by parents and the community. At least some underutilization of schools has been caused by a district policy that allows parents to transfer their children to other campuses. Yet the district has also received significant pushback in the past when it suggested curbing the transfer policy or overhauling boundaries.
Because May elections typically have low turnouts and draw only those who have a stake in the election, a political consultant says getting the chamber on board could help.
“If you can do or say anything to make your vote of supporters broader and happier, then do it,” said Mark Littlefield, a political consultant. “The last thing you want to do is pour any fuel on the fire.”
If the bond package is approved, the owner of an average-value home, currently $244,534 after exemptions, would pay $3,123 in school taxes, an increase of about $86 annually.
The board meeting will start at 6 p.m. Monday in the board room of district headquarters, 1111 W. Sixth St.
The $892 million bond package — the largest ever attempted by a Central Texas school district — will be broken into four propositions:
• $140.6 million for health, environment, equipment and technology.
• $233.9 million for safety, security and relief from overcrowded schools.
• $349.2 million for academic and building infrastructure renovations and repairs.
• $168.6 million for academic initiatives, fine arts and athletics.