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Austin school leaders will ‘move swiftly’ to launch $1.1B bond projects


Highlights

The issuing of contracts and construction on the first projects could begin as early as the fall of 2018.

Priority projects include a new Eastside High campus on a separate site, which clears way for relocating LASA.

The day after voters gave overwhelming approval to the Austin district’s $1.1 billion bond measure, school leaders said they will move swiftly to get the bond projects off the ground.

The bond, the largest ever approved by voters in Central Texas, won with 72 percent of the vote. It will pay to rebuild multiple schools, construct new campuses and address overcrowding in a district where the average school is 46 years old.

“We’ve made history for the future of our kids; how exceptional is that?” Superintendent Paul Cruz said. “Austin believes in public education. Bottom line, the winners are our students.”

The issuing of contracts and construction on the first projects could begin as early as the fall of 2018, with the first new campuses ready for the fall of 2019. Priority projects include building a new campus on a different site for Eastside Memorial High School, which would pave the way for the relocation of the nationally recognized Liberal Arts and Sciences Academy to a bigger campus that will allow it to grow to 2,000 students, nearly double its current enrollment.

READ: Austin district looks to bond to boost enrollment, turn around schools

“We’re not going to let the grass grow under our feet,” said Nicole Conley Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, who will oversee the bond. “Time is of the essence. Our students have waited far too long for us to remedy some of the issues that we’re seeing. … We’re going to move fast, we’re going to move swift, and we’re going to do this with the level of oversight and accountability that we’ve always demonstrated in the past.”

For the first time, the district will involve campus leaders, and possibly campus advisory councils, in the selection of the contractors. “I feel like it’s important for the school communities to understand the contractors are their partners too,” Conley Johnson said. “They’re in it together for a long while.”

The $1.1 billion bond is the first of several needed in coming years to carry out the vision and projects of a comprehensive, 25-year facilities master plan aimed at modernizing the district and all of its campuses.

Vote seen as sign of faith

The wide margin of approval by voters Tuesday night was a stark difference from the 2013 district bond results, when two of four propositions failed, and those that passed did so narrowly. Nearly twice as many voters cast ballots Tuesday as did in the 2013 bond election, which was held in May.

“I feel like it says that people don’t just like their public schools, they love their public schools,” said Kendall Pace, board president. “It’s a great feeling that the city believes in the public good. This process was better devised and more transparent.”

District leaders say the passage of the bonds will not increase the tax rate, but taxpayers will still see rising property tax bills. District leaders are banking on increased property values, issuing the bonds as debt is paid down and getting low interest rates, to keep the tax rate flat.

Opponents criticized the bond for a lack of equity, particularly in how money would be invested in East Austin, called for greater transparency on the bond’s tax impact and questioned the need for new schools as the district’s enrollment continues to dwindle.

Opponents had difficulty gaining traction, while there was widespread support for the bonds, including substantial donations from the city’s business community, especially those in the building trade, leading critics to call it a “contractors’ bond.”

Don Zimmerman, who leads the Travis County Taxpayers’ Union, which opposed the bond, said homeowners should be prepared for rising property tax bills.

“Of course, we are greatly disappointed that taxpayers will not show up to vote and defend both themselves and the people least able to shoulder the crushing tax load,” said Zimmerman, a former City Council member.

Cruz pointed to the creation of a comprehensive facility plan and better community engagement during the two-year process as reasons for the success of this year’s bond compared with 2013. Ken Zarifis, president of the pro-bond labor group Education Austin, said the entire bond process was better.

“There are clearly things we have to do as a district to be inclusive and address equity, but it was very gratifying to see the support for this bond,” Zarifis said. “The kids are going to get a lot of things they need.”

Zarifis called the 2013 bond election a wake-up call to the district and pointed to the lack of trust in the district’s leadership as a reason for the failures.

“People have greater faith in AISD today than they had in 2013,” he said. “Hitting 70 percent or above has to show a trust in the leadership … that didn’t exist four years ago. We’re in a better place than we were four years ago. But I don’t want this to be an overconfidence. There’s still a lot of work and a lot of bridges that need to be built.”



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