The Leander school district’s tax rate will remain steady — for now, at least. But escalating debt in the district has some in the community asking the school board to raise taxes now to pay it down.
Some have even urged the district to call an election this year to raise taxes to boost the district’s maintenance and operations budget. It is not yet clear whether the school board will agree.
“If you’d have asked me that question a month ago, I’d say no way,” School Board President Pam Waggoner said. Waggoner said she was surprised to hear the call to raise taxes, but noted it was mostly from a small, vocal group. She said district officials would have to test those waters with other constituents.
About 20 speakers at a recent board meeting wanted the board to raise the debt repayment portion of the tax rate by about six percent so the district can pay off more debt now. School Board Member Aaron Johnson cast the lone vote against the proposal to hold the tax rate steady, echoing the call to raise the debt rate.
Others urged the district to call a tax ratification election this year to raise the maintenance and operations side of the tax rate, so that portion of the budget can handle more immediate costs.
Leander has nearly doubled in size in the past decade. A $247 million operating budget adopted by the school board accounts for 589 new students, bringing total enrollment to 34,983.
Though growth has slowed in recent years, the district’s use of a controversial pay-later method of borrowing to accommodate an expanding student body drew criticism from the state Legislature.
The district is among those in the state that have relied on capital appreciation bonds, which delay repayment for decades while interest can grow to as much as 10 times the amount borrowed. The districts say the bonds allow them to make the improvements demanded by growth, even as they bump up against a state-mandated limit on taxes they can collect to pay off debt. The limit stands at 50 cents per $100 of taxable property value.
Currently, 47 cents of the Leander school district’s $1.51 per $100 tax rate goes toward debt repayment. That tax rate will remain the same as last year, but the owner of an average valued home in the district — $228,845 — will still pay about $114 more, because of rising property values.
The rising property values mean the district should bring in about $4 million more dollars this year. The 4-percent larger operating budge will fund about 124 new positions — mostly teachers — including 59 regular classroom teachers, 15 special education teachers, six bilingual teachers, and three teachers for the district’s gifted and talented program. The budget also includes funding for 1.5 percent raises for staff and varying pay boosts for teachers.
District officials are still considering whether or not to issue more than $100 million more in voter-approved bonds to build a sixth high school. Rouse High School is likely to need 18 portables by 2016 — a $1.2 million investment that will also eat up a good portion of the school’s field space — if the school district does not build the school.
Board members are expected to decide in September.
The Leander school district’s budget
2012-13 operating budget: $237.7 million
Adopted 2013-14 budget: $247.4 million, up $9.7 million
Tax rate: Unchanged at $1.51 per $100 of assessed value
Tax impact: The owner of an average-value home of $228,845, after exemptions, will pay $3,460, up $114 from last year.
Enrollment: 34,983, up 589 students