Austin school district voters need choices for bonds, not an ultimatum

We urge Austin school district trustees to craft a bond package that is transparent, efficient and equitable and avoid waging an all-or-nothing gamble that might backfire with voters and leave schools — some in deep disrepair — in the lurch.

Unfortunately, some school leaders seem headed in that direction by leaning toward a bond package on the Nov. 7 ballot that would offer voters a single proposition with a price tag of at least $900 million.

That is not a choice; it’s an ultimatum that thwarts transparency and ignores lessons of the past.

In favoring one proposition, Board Member Amber Elenz and others have cited results from the district’s 2013 bond election, in which Austin school district voters rejected two propositions totaling about half of the $892 million bond package — and the failure of the Round Rock school district’s bond package this month, totaling $572 million in three separate propositions.

“After watching what happened in Round Rock, I think we (tell) voters it’s a one-proposition plan. They either support public schools or they don’t,” Elenz told the American-Statesman.

Other school leaders have pointed to the success of the city of Austin’s $872 transportation bond package — all lumped in one proposition that voters passed last year — as a reason to adopt a similar approach.

That would be a mistake. In our view, it misses the root causes of why voters rejected bonds in some cases – including for light rail in 2014 and for a county courthouse in 2015, because they deemed them too extravagant for their wallets — and passed them in other circumstances, such as the city of Austin’s “Go Big” 2016 transportation bond package.

For instance, the failure of the Round Rock school district’s bonds had more to do with timing, messaging and turnout, said Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“Certainly, there was a clear need for school bonds in the Round Rock district,” he told us this week. “But they started too late, didn’t have enough time to explain to voters and had a miserable turnout.” At 10.5 percent, that’s a fair description.

Round Rock’s bond package faced organized opposition. Though small, it was effective with a strong push through social media. As the American-Statesman’s Melissa B. Taboada reported, voters were divided: Travis County voters in the Round Rock district opposed the bond package by a 2-1 ratio, compared with Williamson County voters who passed two of three of the propositions.

That could signal that Travis County voters were aloof to the needs of the rest of the district or weren’t sold on the district’s message that the bonds were essential for upgrading schools and athletic facilities – including building a $22 million indoor swim center.

Ultimately, most Round Rock district voters rejected all three propositions. How that gets translated by Austin school trustees to mean the bond package would have passed if it had all been lumped in one proposition is anyone’s guess.

Austin school trustees are doing some things right. They’ve called a November election that will generate a larger turnout, assembled a citizens’ advisory committee that created a facilities master plan to prioritize capital projects, and held community meetings to explain the needs of Austin’s many aging and overcrowded schools. That’s a challenging message to get across in a district that is losing enrollment.

The advisory committee identified $1.2 billion in capital projects to tackle over the next six years. The committee and trustees want that amount further cut to fit with the district’s desire not to raise the current tax rate of about $1.08 per $100 of assessed property value. That means keeping the entire package below $1 billion.

Nonetheless, they seem to be in an echo chamber when it comes to transparency and efficiency.

Offering voters one $900 million proposition does not provide true transparency because it combines the most urgent needs with the less urgent, denying voters the respect and choices to which they are entitled in making decisions that affect their budgets. We urge trustees to keep faith with voters by advancing several propositions.

Efficiency is another concern. Yes, keeping the package under $1 billion keeps the tax rate flat. But make no mistake — property taxes will increase significantly in future years as property values rise. In light of that, school leaders should ask themselves not just if $900 million in projects are needed, but if taxpayers can afford them?

No one should be fooled by the city’s success in passing one, mega bond proposition to address Austin’s transportation needs. Not only was it equitable in reach by focusing on the most-congested traffic corridors, it resonated with nearly all Austin residents who are directly impacted by the city’s chronic congestion and willing to tax themselves to help relieve it.

School trustees are looking at a very different voting base: Those with a direct stake in schools — parents, teachers and employers – and those without, including empty-nesters, singles without children and people who send their children to private or charter schools.

The challenge is to put together a bond package that appeals to both groups. That means giving voters choices.

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