Viewpoints: Austin ISD bond puts kids on track for 21st century jobs

Austin Independent School District voters face a rock-and-hard-place decision regarding the school district’s $1.05 billion bond proposition.

The rock is rising property tax bills that are pounding their wallets. Voters’ tax bills will rise even more if they approve the single proposition on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The hard place is the poor state of many Austin ISD facilities and obsolete technology that make it ever tough to compete with charter schools and provide the training and tools needed to prepare students for the Central Texas workforce and global economy.

Against that backdrop, we urge voters to choose the hard place and support the bond package.

VIEWPOINTS BLOG: No kidding, Austin tax bills are squeezing some out.

Certainly, school trustees and Superintendent Paul Cruz stumbled in putting together a bond proposition that was supposed to focus on what they call “worst-first” projects to address necessities, such as run-down schools, overcrowding, outmoded technology, deferred maintenance and structural problems that led to one school, T.A. Brown Elementary, being demolished, and sections of Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Academy going dark.

To such dire needs they unfortunately added nonessential projects, such as expanding and relocating the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, that should have been delayed to keep tax bills as low as possible. Keeping the bond package under $1 billion would have been an easier sell.

It’s also obvious that district officials were strategic in incorporating high-dollar — though needed — makeovers and expansions for Bowie High (about $88 million) and a new elementary campus ($36 million), both in Southwest Austin, and renovations and new construction for Casis and Doss elementaries and Murchison Middle School (more than $100 million) in Northwest Austin. All are situated in affluent areas that typically generate higher voter turnout than most other areas of the district.

COMMENTARY: Austin ISD bond plan would create segregation.

Politics aside, the case for approving the proposition is solid:

  • Schools are using 20th-century equipment for jobs that require 21st-century tools: With numerous tech and online companies, including Apple, Google, Silicon Labs, HomeAway and Dell, the Austin area has become a hub for companies looking locally to fill jobs. To remain relevant, public schools must play a larger role in helping students prepare for jobs in a world economy shaped by technology. The bond package would steer $55.5 million to tech upgrades for all schools.
  • Schools need to be redesigned to address local employment needs. A good example is Wednesday’s announcement that LBJ High School in Northeast Austin, through a partnership with Dell Medical School at the University of Texas and Austin ISD, will become the district’s first health professions high school. The bond package sets aside $22 million for the medical program, aimed for students seeking health careers, from phlebotomists to doctors. LBJ would become a direct pipeline for jobs in Austin’s emerging medical sector and fertile ground for college recruiters.
  • All schools will receive safety and security improvements, including fire/intrusion alarm upgrades and security camera replacements. Also, 105 campuses will get roofing, HVAC, drainage or other related improvements. Sixteen campuses are targeted for modernization.
  • Expansions and renovations would address overcrowding in certain areas of the district. Along with Bowie High and Murchison Middle, Akins High in south Austin is over capacity with 2,784 students jammed into a school meant for 2,394 . Doss Elementary in Northwest Austin and Blazier in southeast are among 16 schools similarly crowded. The bond allocates $362 million for overcrowding.
  • A larger investment in schools across the district would keep Austin ISD competitive with charter schools and boost equity. While more equity should go to Title I schools — which would receive about 44 percent of the bond funds, and whose students mostly are from low-income families — the consequences for those schools would worsen without a huge infusion of money for upgrades, extreme makeovers and new construction. That would include building a coed middle school in the Mueller development at a cost of about $61 million.
  • Not passing the bond package likely would trigger school closures as district officials would face enormous financial pressure to address inefficiencies, such as those associated with maintaining underenrolled or aging schools that tend to be in East Austin. There would be little money to upgrade or replace them. Those factors would hinder the district’s efforts to hold on to students leaving for charter schools, which have targeted low-income students zoned for Austin ISD schools in East Austin. Without the $70 million from bonds, the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders would not be rebuilt.

COMMENTARY: Austin ISD bond package isn’t perfect but deserves support.

Trustees arrogantly wrapped all projects in a single proposition that presents voters with an all-or-nothing choice. That — along with the district’s lack of transparency in boasting no increase in the tax rate while downplaying the true impact on tax bills, which will rise, given yearly increases in property values – might backfire if voters struggling to pay property taxes reject bonds.

Only when we asked did district officials provide a tax bill increase estimate based on approving the bonds. For the median-priced Austin ISD home of $262,282 this year, the tax bill would rise to $3,345 in 2019, or by $219, assuming a 7-percent increase in taxable property value. That would grow to $3,579 in 2020. Those are conservative estimates, since property values rose about 12 percent each year on average for the past five years.

That brings us back to the rock – soaring tax bills – and the hard place — quality schools that lean forward. It’s a difficult choice that boils down to the public’s willingness to sacrifice, not just for Austin ISD students, but for our local economy and quality of life. In our view, that is worth the investment of higher tax bills.

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