An $892 million Austin Independent School District bond package will go before voters on the May 11 ballot. If passed, this package could increase AISD’s existing $1.12 billion debt to more than $2 billion. It comes barely six months after city of Austin voters approved all but $78 million of a $385 million bond package for projects including park upgrades, library renovations and road improvements. Only a proposal to build, renovate and repair affordable housing received just less than 49 percent of the vote. In this same election, Travis County voters passed a measure to increase property taxes collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district, from 7.89 cents to 12.9 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
The AISD package will include four propositions:
$140.6 million for health, environment, equipment and technology;
$233.9 million for safety, security and relief from overcrowded schools;
$349.2 million for academic and building infrastructure renovations and repairs;
$168.6 million for academic initiatives, fine arts and athletics.
In a recent op-ed, the Austin American-Statesman contended that “while the projects may be worthy and needed,” the two months until the election “is simply not enough time to mount the kind of campaign needed to explain the need to take on that size of bond debt.” The piece noted how the AISD package as the only ballot issue for the May election means greater taxpayer expense for holding the election as the usual cost sharing opportunities with other jurisdictions won’t occur. While it warned such a condition also risks low voter turnout for a decision that “deserves widespread attention, comment and public discussion,” critics would likely argue that school districts favor low voter turnout elections as they give district employees’ high voter turnout greater influence over an election’s outcome.
The packaging and selling of bonds to public entities is a sophisticated, organized business. Voter passage of such measures is one final step. Bond campaign materials were likely in production with events already being planned prior to the final measures’ official approval. It’s that coordinated, it’s that calculated.
Opposition to such bond packages are generally more harmed by a short timeline as these groups or individuals are often grassroots, privately-funded efforts which rarely have manpower or financial resources immediately in hand.
The Travis County Taxpayers Union has announced its opposition to the bond proposal. Per a released statement, the group said: “On the heels of a huge private and public propaganda campaign last fall to mislead Travis County voters into approving a 68% ‘Central Health District’ property tax rate increase, the government round-robin robbery of property taxpayers now moves to AISD in May — just in time for the historically low turnout which maximizes the special interest vote of the government school monopoly.”
The TCTU characterizes school districts as using an “ABC” political strategy in bond campaigns that includes:
A. Form a “bond advisory committee” (BAC) that presumably represents “the community”, to “study the facts”, and “make independent recommendations”. The reality is, only persons known to be sympathetic to the political position of the District (that is, to promote and pass the Bonds) are allowed to serve on a BAC. The “facts” the BAC is presented with are carefully screened and manipulated by the experienced school District bureaucrats. Facts or questions regarding taxpayer affordability of the Bonds, risks of rising interest rates and declining credit ratings, possibility of declining student enrollment, likelihood of further economic recessions, alternative school choices for growth like charter schools or home schools which don’t issue Bonds, and any other such facts or concerns relevant to a truthful Bond deliberation, are discouraged or repressed;
B. Raise campaign funds from corporate donors such as architectural firms, construction companies, law firms, government bond-broker agencies, banks, developers, and other entities which may stand to profit from more un-affordable bonds; in addition, small companies sensitive to be accused of being “anti-education” can also be shaken down for small donations. The District will affirm and supplement the campaign by releasing “educational Bond information” which amounts to illegal campaign advocacy under Texas Election Code Title 15, because it overwhelmingly presents and emphasizes only information which supports a YES vote for Bonds;
C. Attack and marginalize, publicly and privately with District resources, anyone who effectively opposes the Bonds as being “against education” and “against children”.
Per the Texas Bond Review Board, AISD current debt stands at $1.12 billion ($750,598,879 principal, $371,691,350 interest, $1,122,290,228 total). Approval of all four proposals would bring AISD’s debt to more than $2 billion.
Local governments taking on debt is a growing problem. According to the Texas Comptroller’s web site, public education accounts for $63.6 billion, more than one-third of local government debt in Texas and about 98 percent of all public school debt is issued through voter-approved bonds and serviced by local property taxes. Also, in fiscal 2011, Texas’ 854 school districts with outstanding debt had $2,573.15 debt per resident, debt per student for the same period was $13,530.12.
School districts and other taxing entities use of principal-only figures during bond campaigns along with other tactics that don’t always promote well-educate voters has prompted legislation in the current session. SB 14 and HB 14, authored by State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, would require taxing entities seeking voter approval for new debt to provide detailed information online and on the election ballot. The information would include the principle amount of all outstanding debt obligations (total and per person), the combined principal and interest required to pay all outstanding debt obligations in full (total and per person), the principal of the bonds to be authorized (total and per person), the estimated combined principal and interest required to pay the bonds to be authorized (total and per person) and the maturity date of the bonds to be authorized.
Early voting for the May 11 election runs Monday, April 29, through Tuesday, May 7.