- By Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
Austin voters in November will weigh a $1.05 billion, single-proposition Austin school bond package.
Funds from the bond package would rebuild several campuses, construct new schools and target overcrowding in pockets of the 83,000-student district. Among the most contentious projects in the package is the relocation of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy out of LBJ High School and into the former Johnston High campus, where Eastside Memorial High is housed. Eastside Memorial would move to a new $80 million campus on the original L.C. Anderson site. The LASA move would allow it to expand to up to 2,000 students.
Trustee Yasmin Wagner said the bond package, while imperfect, will touch nearly every student in some way.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be in a place where we can fit every single need that we want to have in this district, because the needs are simply too great,” Wagner said at the school board meeting Monday night. “But what we do have in front of us is a bond package that will impact every corner of our district positively. … Every one of our students will benefit from this.”
The bond projects total $1.13 billion, but trustees plan to apply $83.8 million in projected leftover bond funds and possible land sales of some East Austin schools to reduce the total package amount.
Despite exceeding the $1 billion cap that several trustees had pushed to stay under, the amount won’t trigger a tax rate increase, district officials said. Board President Kendall Pace at a previous meeting said a recent a poll gauging support of a bond package, paid for by a political action committee supporting it, said taxpayers were more likely to support a bond if it stayed under $1 billion, particularly if it didn’t increase the tax rate.
District officials said the tax rate would remain flat at $1.192 per $100 of assessed property value, with $1.079 designated for operations and 11 cents going toward debt repayment. For the owner of the district’s average taxable value home of $355,947, the school tax bills would total nearly $4,243. As properties increase in value, that same tax rate would lead to increasingly higher tax bills.
Some schools would be sold
To bring down the costs of the bond package, the school district could shutter a handful of East Austin schools.
Multiple school properties could be sold in the next five years, sales that were factored in to lower the cost of the bond package by $40 million, according to district documents obtained by the American-Statesman.
A line item in other bond package documents that have been presented publicly shows the $40 million as “estimated land sales,” but doesn’t detail the exact properties that could be sold. An additional $43.7 million in bond contingency funds, or money left over from previous bonds, also would be used to lower the amount that is put before voters.
The schools that could be considered for sale, according to documents, are chronically underenrolled or recently have had declining student populations, including Brooke, Metz, Norman and Sanchez elementaries.
Also included is the Rosedale School, which serves the district’s students with the most severe disabilities. That school is slated to get a new $40 million campus on the current Lucy Read primary school site, which will close. The district hasn’t detailed what would happen to the current Rosedale site once the school moves.
Pace said the district in coming years will be actively looking at efficiency of land use as part of the facilities master plan process, but as of now, nothing has been specifically identified.
Keeping an eye on equity
Until Monday, the bond proposal sat at $990 million, but excluded the new northeast middle school, which drew criticism from parents, community members and minority groups. They argued the school would work toward the board’s goal of better integrating schools, with students from the Mueller development and surrounding neighborhoods, and petitioned the board again at the packed meeting to include it.
Among the 30 public speakers who were able to address the board, community activist Rocío Villalobos said she didn’t attend a racially integrated school in Austin until middle school. Little has changed, as nearly half of Austin’s students attend heavily segregated schools and nearly one-third attend schools segregated by income, she said.
“One thing I don’t see and that I would like to see more of is the explicit commitment to integration in the future of our schools,” she said. “There are a lot of important things that will be done to benefit students in schools that really need support; however, we need schools and we need a school district that are committed to racial equity … to having that be part of the conversations when we talk about how money gets spent, what academic programs are being offered.”
Trustee Ted Gordon, who for weeks raised similar concerns about inequity in the bond package, and pointed to projects that he said will lead to further segregation of the district, including the LASA move, ultimately voted for the package. While there are things in it he said he didn’t support, the bond package, with the addition of the Mueller middle school, is a step forward in addressing some of the issues of equity, diversity and socio-economic segregation, he said.
“We’ve made mistakes as we’ve gone through this process, but I think in general, honest mistakes,” Gordon said. “But more importantly, having lost two initiatives in the last bond … there’s an incredible amount of need. Facilities that are crumbling, many that are overcrowded. These are conditions that need relief.”
The projects in the bond package have largely come from work over the last year on a 25-year comprehensive facilities master plan aimed at modernizing the district and all of its campuses. The plan includes hundreds of recommendations, and district officials said the November bond is the first of several they will need to call to address those needs.