I believe there is nuance in something as complicated as a school district’s bond package or a facilities master plan. The over-simplified claims of naysayers miss salient points.
First of all, nothing about the Austin Independent School District bond package on the Nov. 7 ballot is “bloated,” as Roger Falk, an analyst with the Travis County Taxpayers Union, insinuated in an oped he wrote for the American-Statesman. when independent engineers verify that 52 district facilities are in poor condition and an additional 26 are deemed “unsatisfactory”. This is not surprising considering that the average age of our schools is 46 years and the district, like others, is experiencing accelerated deterioration of its buildings.
Secondly, this bond has nothing to do with how AISD spends its operating funds. There are two tax rates that make up your property tax bill. First, there is a maintenance & operations tax rate that is subject to a 45 percent recapture to the state. Recapture is the process by which the state takes money from school districts with more valuable property and re-distributes it to districts that have less valuable property. Austin ISD property taxpayers will be sending $533 million of our local school taxes to the state this year. AISD does not have the highest taxable property value per student, as the Travis County Taxpayers Union asserts. Eanes ISD, for instance, is one of many districts that have greater property wealth per student than AISD; however, AISD does have the unfortunate distinction of paying the most into recapture.
Technically, all recapture money goes to public education, but more recapture dollars to the state, means the state can put less money into the public education finance system as a whole. This is important to understand in debating AISD finances.
The second tax rate that contributes to your AISD tax bill is interest and sinking (I&S), and that revenue is used to finance capital projects, such as facilities. AISD keeps 100 percent of the I&S tax revenue, but it can only be used for capital outlays, such as construction and facilities, and by law cannot be used for salaries. Travis County Taxpayers Union (TCTU) knows its insinuation — decrying that bond money should be going to teacher salaries — isn’t legally allowed. It also knows that a majority of bond proceeds typically flow through construction and engineering firms. To cry foul at this is blatant fear mongering.
We have old, aging and unsafe, facilities — a lot of them. We spend too much of our operating budget, out of sheer necessity, on facility maintenance including custodial, repairs, short-term fixes. This Band-aid approach is not cost-effective. We have student safety issues with too many open-campuses. We have old buses and schools with unsafe structural flooring. We created a facilities master planning process that was thoughtful, community-based, expertly advised and conservative in cost and transparent. The bond is the first step in implementing this plan. We are also in the process of monetizing excess and underutilized land and will continue to do so. The irony is that while Mr. Falk complains about AISD maintenance costs, he simultaneously recommends not substantially investing in improvements. This proposed inaction only heightens the cycle of deterioration thus increasing repair costs in the future.
We believe AISD can keep the 11-cent I&S tax rate after this bond mostly due to how and when debt is issued. No one said this bond was “free.” AISD’s fiscal prudence is why AISD is one of seven districts out of 1,200 in Texas that has a AAA credit rating from Moody’s.
I ask that you support the AISD bond. With more than $5 billion in deferred maintenance, we tried to balance need, equity and taxpayer sensitivity. We have angered those who wanted a bigger bond. I believe that public education is a community good, its benefits far outpacing the investments. We must take care of the assets and facilities that the public has entrusted with us in bonds past.
Lastly, I would be happy if Mr. Falk would accept my invitation to serve on the district’s Citizen’s Bond Oversight Committee to ensure that the district is managing its bond projects in a taxpayer efficient manner.
Pace is president of the Austin Independent School District board of trustees.