- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
Nearly 3 in 4 of Austin voters blame the state, and not the school district, for driving up their property taxes, according to a poll commissioned by a political action committee pushing for a November school bond.
That sentiment could play to the district’s favor as it seeks more than $1 billion in a November bond package that would fund new schools, rebuild campuses and make hundreds of others improvements.
The poll of 400 registered voters considered likely to cast ballots in the bond election, performed by Opinion Analysts Inc., shows about 73 percent blame the Legislature for not adequately funding public education, while about 17 percent said the district spends too much money. The poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.
Austin hands over more money to the state to subsidize schools in areas that are property poor than any other district in Texas. Of the more than $4,200 in Austin district tax bills that the average homeowner pays , about 40 percent doesn’t fund local schools.
More than $1,700 of the average school tax bill goes to a recapture payment, required under state school finance laws from districts with high property wealth, like Austin, to help subsidize funding for districts in other parts of the state. And as Austin property values continue to rise, and the district’s enrollment declines, a greater percentage of the local school tax revenue will go to the state in the future.
The district last year sent the state a recapture payment of $406 million, about one-third of the district’s $1.3 billion budget, and 46 percent of its operations budget. This fiscal year, the annual recapture payment is estimated to be $533 million.
But all school bond money remains local, which was a selling point among those polled. Nearly 72 percent of those interviewed said they were “somewhat likely” to “much more likely” to support a district bond package because the funds only would pay for Austin schools.
The poll also shows 63 percent were leaning toward the bond’s passage. However, the poll, performed early last month, pertained to an amount well under the $1.05 billion bond package approved by the school board. A district advisory committee and bond consultants had recommended the bond package not exceed $900 million, which was the amount those conducting the poll used in their telephone interviews. Ultimately the school board approved putting nearly $1.1 billion before voters in November.
Political consultants working toward the bond’s passage said the poll results demonstrate they are starting in a good place.
“It’s no guarantee that they’ll win, but it starts out with sure footing at this stage,” said David Butts, a political consultant working with the Committee for Austin’s Children for the bond’s passage. “With bond elections having trouble, I was surprised by the numbers.”
In 2013, voters rejected two of four propositions in the district’s $892 million bond package, the first time in 25 years that Austin voters turned down funding for school projects. Austin and Travis County voters also recently turned down bond referendums for a $287 million civil courthouse in 2015 and a $1 billion rails-and-road proposal in 2014. However, the May passage of school bonds in Hays, but failure in Round Rock, doesn’t have much bearing on what will happen in Austin, Butts said.
About 400 registered voters within the Austin school district — selected as those likely to turn out for a November school district election — were interviewed during the poll, conducted May 30 to June 4.
Committee for Austin’s Children, which formed in February, spent $12,000 to conduct the poll, which gauged support of a $900 million school bond if there was no increase in the district’s tax rate, and basic projects that largely came from a list recommended in a facilities master plan adopted by the school board. The majority of the voters polled weren’t parents, were white and had a median age of 52.
The group expects to conduct a second poll in early August that will use the exact $1.05 billion bond package amount, and determines what projects voters most support, to help formulate messaging pitched to voters.
And while the poll also found that 62 percent rated the Austin district as good or excellent at providing a quality education, they were split on how well they thought the district manages its budget and facilities. About 40 percent said the district was doing a good or excellent job, while about the same percentage said the district was doing a poor or only fair job. About 20 percent said they didn’t know.