Commentary: Why I’ve decided I can’t support the Austin ISD bond

  • Roger Falk
  • Special to the American-Statesman
Nov 03, 2017
Tamir Kalifa
A crew from C.W. Oates Masonry, Inc. works on a renovation at J.A. Patton Elementary School in July.

After analyzing Austin ISD’s massive $1 billion bond, I have concluded this bond shouldn’t be approved.

Austin ISD spent $400 million for maintenance over the past 5 years. Another $349 million was approved by voters for repairs in 2013. That works out to an average of $100,000 per month, per school. Yet trustees claim everything is broken. Where’s all that money gone? Austin ISD has a maintenance management crisis, which raises basic competency questions. Until we get an independent audit, you must vote no.

Austin ISD wants to borrow for expansion in the face of their demographers predicting a 10-year enrollment decline. A current net excess capacity of 9,000 desks illustrates a facility utilization problem. Ten percent of the schools account for over 50 percent of the overcrowding; let’s fix that.

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Doss, Blazer, Hill and Murchison need increased capacity to keep up with localized growth. Bowie High, with the greatest overenrollment at 433 students, is only a few miles from Crockett High, under enrolled by 685 students. Austin ISD’s distribution problem, exacerbated by artificial boundary lines, again raises basic competency questions. Until the district efficiently uses its facilities, you must vote no.

Austin ISD has the highest taxable property value per student of all school districts in Texas. It also has the lowest tax rate of all districts in our area. A major part of its sales pitch is that recapture is killing the district and driving this bond. Recapture, as an argument from the district, actually shows its incompetence, as Austin ISD enjoys the highest per-student funding of all large Texas districts after recapture.

Trustees’ claims that recapture funds are stolen by the Legislature for other spending are false and deceptive; the money is required by law to go to education. Recapture may allocate 40 percent to help poor Texas school districts, but bond money sends 65 cents for every dollar to Wall Street to service the borrowing.

The district is trying to trick you to believe “no tax rate increase” equals “free.” Austin ISD’s “free” is appraisal-based property tax increases over the next three years that will raise the average property’s tax bill $990 annually — without the bond. Using standard bond tax impact calculation — as Travis County does — servicing this bond will cost $275 per year on the average property. The only number a voter needs to decide is the repayment cost, as in what’s the payment for this car. Who in their right mind believes Austin ISD can borrow $1 billion with interest and not have an associated tax increase? Deception shouldn’t be rewarded.

This is a contractor bond, not an educator bond. Nothing goes to teachers, the vital element in education. Contractors and developers fund a political action committee with $358,000 using well-connected political consultants to sell it. It’s an exorbitant, wish-list spending spree that doubles the district’s debt. A contractor-conceived bond, sold by contractors, to enrich contractors.

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Austin ISD boasts of its performance but wants to borrow money to experiment with cool “21st-century” classrooms and “reinventing urban education.” Clever sales pitches, but if things are so good — graduation rates are up in all categories, Austin ISD says — why reinvent the wheel? The district should be focused on doing the job it’s charged to do: provide foundational education and work with our special needs students. Borrowing money to experiment and “reinvent” when things are working is not a good investment. You must vote “no.”

I support Austin ISD and public education; we should fund it properly. That means efficiently and at the lowest cost to the taxpayer. Many of the district’s needs are valid, but they’re not worth $1 billion. A modest and sensible bond to address actual fixes within the district is in order. This isn’t it.

Austin ISD is being deceptive on the bond cost, has cooked up a wish list of dubious “needs” and desires to conceal its maintenance mismanagement. Higher taxes, higher rents and less affordability will be the byproduct of this massive escalation of debt and the associated tax increases. If you don’t vote, don’t complain when your higher tax bill arrives.

Falk is an analyst with the Travis County Taxpayers Union.