Group opposing Eanes school bond draws $77,000 in contributions

With less than two weeks until voters decide whether to approve an $89.5 million bond for the Eanes school district, a political group has raised about $77,000 with hopes of defeating it.

The majority of the money — $50,000 — raised by the political action committee Citizens for Academic Excellence in Eanes comes from one donor, Tires Made Easy, a company that is suing the school district over 50 acres of land the district leased to build a sports complex.

“The community once again is endorsing our message,” said the PAC’s co-founder, Al Cowan about his contributors. “It’s also indicative of the fact that when engaged and given a logical and fact-based argument, they’re going to continue to support schools, but oppose anything that’s harmful.”

But to John Havenstrite, that hefty donation has “turned what should have been a civil dialogue into something adversarial and expensive.”

Havenstrite is part of the pro-bond PAC Committed to Excellence, which has raised an estimated $55,000. A majority of the donors are “concerned parents,” he said. A handful of the donors are engineering and architectural companies that have worked on various school construction projects in Central Texas.

Austin-based political consultant Mark Littlefield said that a $50,000 donation can fund a very “robust mail campaign.” He said the significant donation is unusual for a small school district in a May election, which has a low voter-turnout.

Five thousand dollars was the largest single donation to a pro-bond PAC before last year’s $892 million bond proposal went to a vote in the Austin school district, which is several times larger than Eanes.

“That’s a lot of money,” Littlefield said of the Tires Made Easy donation. “It makes it more difficult to pass a bond election. It could easily buy you an election.”

Early voting on the bond has started. Election Day is May 10. Among the pricier items in the bond is a $35.5 million elementary school to replace 32-year-old Valley View Elementary on the west side, new facilities to house district support services, refurbishing classrooms and updating technology.

If passed, the tax rate would grow from $1.21 per $100 assessed value of property to $1.24. For the owner of an average-valued home in the district, $674,584, it would amount to $169 more in property taxes.

“We’re just a group of parents interested in … balancing out the school districts’ facilities, so they can better accommodate the growth that we’re anticipating and better serve the educational needs for the kids,” Havenstrite said.

The district is expected to grow by as much as 7 percent over the next four years to 8,700 students, according to a study last year.

Cowan, who served on the school board from 1999 to 2001 and helped defeat the three bond propositions in 2010, said the replacement school isn’t needed and this year’s bond would dig the district into deeper debt, exacerbating budget constraints. He said that his group has received widespread support, with both small and large contributions.

Tires Made Easy is one of four plaintiffs that filed suit against the district last April after it leased about 50 acres of land to Western Hills Little League for 50 years. A youth sports complex is planned for the site near the corner of River Hills and Taylor roads. All the plaintiffs in the suit either have property next to or near the future site of the complex, according to the Travis County Appraisal District.

The most recent expense reports available, from late March, show that the anti-bond PAC had spent about $16,000, most of it on direct-mail fliers.

About 15 percent of the donations to the pro-bond PAC come from businesses that work on school projects, Havenstrite said. But he said most of them have not expressed interest in bidding for the bond work if it passes.

“Mostly where you see a firm name, you’ve got somebody who has a kid in the (district),” he said. “We were looking for people who had personal ties.”

Cowan questions the motivation of construction firms that made pro-bond donations.

And he says the district is treading a fine legal line with a flier mailed to residents, and a letter from a principal posted on a district website. Texas school officials are allowed to give information about a bond issue but are forbidden from campaigning with any public resources, including employee time and district materials.

The school district has mailed a 4-page flier describing the proposed projects and frequently asked questions about them. Last month, the principal at Bridge View Elementary posted a letter on the school’s website urging parents to vote and make an informed decision.

The school district said that all distributed materials have been strictly informational and lawful and reviewed by the district’s bond counsel.

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