The direct mail drop right before voters cast the first early ballots in the May 11 Austin school bonds election was compelling. A smiling first-grader identified as Mia asks you to vote for her future.
It is a classic play for school bond votes: Use an image of a child asking you to invest a few dollars for school district infrastructure that makes it hard to say “no.”
The district’s board and administration is asking for permission to borrow $892 million — the largest in the district’s 132-year history. The four bond propositions on the ballot are the results of many hours of hard work by the district’s volunteer bond advisory committee and by district staff. And while we appreciate the commitment of time and effort, the American-Statesman cannot recommend passage of any of the four items presented to district voters.
The newspaper is a strong supporter of public education, and that support makes this decision difficult. But we cannot in good conscience recommend approval of a package that is riddled with questionable cost estimates and expenditures and rushed for inclusion on the May ballot.
We have no doubt that the repairs that Proposition 3 (worth $349.1 million) would finance are needed, but the thrown-together estimates for the work inspire no confidence. As the Statesman’s Ben Wermund reported April 28, the numbers in the bond propositions have not been properly vetted because of the rush.
Documents obtained by the Statesman show that outdoor restrooms and concessions buildings are budgeted for each of the district’s 12 high schools at $833,333 each — not quite $10 million. Calculations by architects hired by the district — who were still vetting the estimates days before early voting started April 29 — show that the project should come in closer to $4 million.
That project was bundled with roof repairs and other more critical needs, so voting for Proposition 3 could mean taking on millions in unnecessary debt. Further, long-term financing for some short-term repair work included in the proposition makes little financial sense. The breakdown includes money to fix broken windows and restroom mirrors, for example. The amount is minuscule, but bond money should be used for capital improvements, not routine maintenance.
Proposition 1 proposes to borrow $10 million to put solar panels on a city-owned landfill. Using solar energy to power some Austin schools may be a good idea, but neither Austin Energy nor the city has signed on, so the district is asking voters to borrow $10 million on a notion — even though the money won’t necessarily be sought immediately.
Another potentially good idea is the establishment of a high school to complement the University of Texas Medical School. Before asking voters for $12 million, district officials should have more to offer than another idea that has yet to be fully vetted with either Seton Healthcare Family or UT. Again, voters are being asked to take a pretty expensive leap before looking at the details.
Proposition 4 also asks permission to borrow $20 million to convert the Alternative Learning Center — the old Anderson High School in East Austin — into an all-boys school. It would have been far more prudent to locate the School for Young Men in one of the district’s several underenrolled schools.
Had the propositions not been structured to bundle needed projects with costly wishful thinking, voters could have separated mere want from true need. Bundling the projects was a political choice — not an academic one. The same goes for ignoring or overlooking the potential for full use of existing buildings before rushing to build new ones.
Trustees seek permission to build new schools when vacancies exist at facilities — mostly east of the interstate.
The prime example is Allan Elementary. Allan was to be turned over to IDEA charter schools before the current board voted to terminate the contract. Now, the building is likely to sit vacant next year after taxpayers footed the bill for $220,000 in renovations and improvements demanded by IDEA. The source of the money was from leftover bond funds voters approved in 2008.
Attracting students to existing schools by offering programming — language instruction, say — would be a constructive way to redistribute student populations.
Waiting for a spot on the November ballot after a more thorough vetting of the items would have made the bond requests more affordable as well as supportable.
To reiterate, it is a departure for the American-Statesman not to support a school bond issue, and we did not reach this decision easily.
Consider that Mia, the cute little girl on the flyer, will grow up and be into her 30s paying back millions in unnecessary debt the bond propositions would impose on her.
Should the bonds be approved, trustees should tighten up oversight of bond expenditures and see that excess bond money doesn’t become a slush fund. Unused bond dollars should go to repaying the debt.
In 1989, Austin voters rejected a school bond issue for the first time in the district’s history. Appropriately chastened, district officials and supporters worked on an $80 million bond package that voters approved.
It’s too late for the district to withdraw this package that doesn’t separate need from want, but not too late to take notes from the 1989 election.