The message that Austin school district voters sent in Saturday’s school bond election is that they are are still willing to invest in public schools, but they look closely at the details.
“The people have spoken. We need to listen,” said John Blazier, volunteer leader of the effort to pass the $892 million bond issue. “I just pray that we as a community can come together and agree on how we’re going to address the needs of our children in public education. We have to build a consensus.”
He is right about that.
Note that Blazier, an Austin lawyer and staunch public school advocate, did not say consensus on how to interpret the election results is what’s needed. If school trustees and administrators want to ask voters for more money — either in a try-again effort on bonds or a property tax increase for operations, which they have been discussing — they are going to need an accurate diagnosis of why two of the four bond propositions failed. And they will need to exercise leadership that can build that consensus and public confidence.
Voters did support, by small margins, the propositions that contained money for repairs and renovations and for technology upgrades. And the bond propositions that voters rejected also went down by small margins. So, voters haven’t given up on the district. But they are divided about what Austin district schools need to improve. The closeness of those bond packages should give Austin school leaders pause. An honest conversation about the district’s agenda and about economic realities is in order. Future bonds must be focused on needs, not wants.
The bonds that passed will require strong management and oversight. Leftover bond money should be used to pay back debt and not be diverted to a bond contingency fund available for use on other initiatives. Bond contingency money paid for costs associated with turning over Allan Elementary to IDEA charter schools.
Post-election analyses are usually heavy with the sight and smell of smoke — not to mention the mirror in which various factions see what they want to see. Some blamed turnout, some blamed the media — most notably the American-Statesman — for aggressive coverage of the bonds. At 10 percent, the turnout was low but three times higher than voter participation in the 2008 bond election, so there was definitely increased interest. And at 10 percent, the participation was on par with the turnout in last year’s Austin City Council elections, which featured a hotly contested mayor’s race.
Critics of the school board blame trustees for the loss of two of the four propositions; critics of the school administration led by Superintendent Meria Carstarphen blame her; others point fingers at the economy — despite continuous affirmation of Austin’s strength — and still others say it was a low turnout that doomed half of the $892 million bond package.
Austin voters have traditionally been very supportive of school bond issues. The only rejection was in 1989 when doubts about the size of the bond package and shaky confidence in the school district’s leadership were blamed for the loss.
There were some parallels to the election this year. The district feels public pressure to fix underpeforming schools and has stumbled in its execution. The furor over turning Allan Elementary over to IDEA resurfaced when Carstarphen said there was no money in the budget to reopen Allan, which is likely to be shuttered temporarily.
The American-Statesman’s pre-election coverage of the bond package noted that the process was rushed, estimates were inflated and some of the projects on the ballot had not been thoroughly vetted. Still in all, the district asked voters for permission to borrow a big number, and no doubt those voters were skittish about the amount the district sought. Nonetheless, proponents did an effective job of salvaging half the package.
All four propositions failed in early voting. Had the early day trend carried over onto election day, all four propositions would have gone down.
Opposition to the four propositions was strongest and most consistent in South and Southwest Austin, with few precincts generally south of Texas 71 and west of Interstate 35 supporting the proposals. Precincts north of U.S. 183 also rejected the propositions, but not as uniformly as their counterparts to the south. Support for the bonds was strongest in Central and East Austin, with isolated precincts voting against the proposals.
The mixed results point to the need for clear direction from the board and efficient, effective execution of that direction from the administration. Stumbles and fumbles don’t inspire the kind of confidence needed to guide a dynamic, growing school district.