- Editorial Board
Judging by early voting results so far, Austin voters have not flocked to the polls to weigh in on the Austin Independent School District’s $1.05 billion bond package on the Nov. 7 ballot, despite ample news coverage and talk on social media about it. Nor have they moved in masses to cast ballots on Travis County $184.9 million bond package, though it contains measures for roads and parks, both typically important to Central Texans.
Early voting began almost two weeks ago, but turnout has been as dismal as it typically is during most nonpresidential elections. Only about 3 percent of Travis County registered voters cast ballots as of Wednesday, a county official said.
There’s still time to have your voices heard. Friday is the last day of early voting — and if you miss it, there’s always Election Day.
To help guide voters in their difficult decisions, we’re revisiting our positions on the two ballot items. Both — the Austin ISD bond package in particular — will have great impact on the region’s quality of life.
If approved, the Austin ISD bond package will allow the district to address dire needs, such as replacing outmoded technology, repairing rundown campuses and addressing structural issues at some schools. The bond also would help provide much-needed solutions for overcrowded schools like Bowie High in Southwest Austin.
Austin ISD trustees unfortunately added nonessential projects, such as expanding and relocating the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, a move that should have been delayed to keep tax bills as low as possible. Also regrettable is that trustees chose to include all projects in a single proposition, leaving voters with an all-or-nothing choice. It was a tough call but, on this ballot item, we urge voters to say “yes” for the sake of the future of our local economy and quality of life.
A larger investment in schools across the district would keep Austin ISD competitive with charter schools, improve equity and prepare students to become part of the emerging tech and medical workforce.
Tech and online companies like Apple, Google, Silicon Labs, HomeAway and Dell that call Austin home look 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.
The same is true for the emerging local medical sector. Schools need to be redesigned to address those local employment needs. Consider the recently announced partnership between Dell Medical School at the University of Texas and Austin ISD that positions LBJ High School in Northeast Austin to be a direct pipeline for jobs and college recruiters. The partnership helps make LBJ the district’s first health professions high school serving students seeking health careers. The bond package sets aside $22 million for the medical program.
Investment in Austin ISD won’t be cheap. Officials calculate that if voters approve the bond package, the property tax bill for the median-priced Austin ISD home of $262,282 this year would rise by $219 to $3,345 in 2019, assuming a conservative 7-percent increase in taxable property value. The tax bill would grow to $3,579 in 2020.
The tax bill increase does not include the potential impact from the other bond packages on the ballot. If voters approve it, Travis County’s $184.9 million bond package for roads, drainage and parks would increase the property tax bill to the average home value of $305,173 by an additional $24. That’s in addition to $95 million worth of road projects financed by certificates of obligation approved this summer by county officials. Those non-voter-approved bonds will add another $12 a year to tax bills.
The Travis County bond package is broken into two propositions: Proposition A for $93.4 million in road and infrastructure improvements, and Proposition B for $91.5 million in parks improvements and conservation.
On this ballot item, we urge voters to support Proposition A, which would finance projects to mitigate flooding, improve and upgrade roads and build bicycle lanes and sidewalks in Precincts 1 and 4. Those precincts, located in eastern Travis County, have been largely neglected and underserved. Proposition A projects would help address needs caused by growth in Austin, which is pushing more traffic and development to eastern portions of the county. Collectively, Proposition A steers $48.3 million to Precincts 1 and 4 for such purposes.
While Precinct 3, represented by Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, would get the largest single amount — $35 million — from Proposition A, most would go to build bicycle lanes and infrastructure ($20 million) and flood mitigation ($13.9 million). Just $1.2 million would be designated for road projects. Commissioner Brigid Shea’s Precinct 2 would get $6.8 million of the Proposition A funds for sidewalks and road improvements.
Though worthy, Proposition B’s park and conservation projects are not critical. It makes sense to delay those projects for a future ballot — if for no other reason than to help hold the line on property tax bills.
Approving only Proposition A would cut the potential $24 property tax increase to about half that amount.
The projects in Proposition A, along with projects in the Austin ISD’s billion-dollar bond package, are critical and should be approved. Digging deeper in our pocketbooks will be worth the sacrifice.
Whether that sacrifice should be made, however, ought not be decided by a mere 3 percent of voters. If you haven’t already done so, go vote and make your voice count.