Temple ISD’s board of trustees voted this week to schedule a Sept. 21 tax ratification election (TRE) that would allow the district to raise property tax rates above the current state cap in order to generate an additional $2.89 million to, per the Temple Daily Telegram, “support a variety of technology, transportation, security, fine arts, career preparation and after-school initiatives.” Besides an important vote for Temple residents – from students to parents to taxpayers – this election reminds that public dollars are increasingly being sought to finance “champagne tastes” despite taxpayers struggling to maintain “beer budgets.”
TISD’s most recent $1.28 per $100 of property valuation comprises $1.04 for maintenance and operations, 24 cents for debt service (long-term debt whose service requires payment of both principal and interest). The September election seeks voter approval to increase the current $1.04 state maximum rate for maintenance and operations to $1.12 for a total of $1.36 per $100 valuation.
The Telegram describes TISD Superintendent Robin Battershell’s explanation for needing this tax increase:
Before the state legislature mandated property tax relief, Battershell said, school maintenance and operation tax rates were $1.50 per $100 valuation. She said the state promised to make up the difference; but because of the recession, it cut school funding. The amount TISD lost amounted to $14 million over a four-year span.
“In my 15 years as superintendent, I’ve never had a deficit budget,” Battershell said. “We can balance anything and provide a basic education for our kids. But if you want to provide other things, such as technology, career preparation opportunities, stronger fine arts programs, better transportation and security, the money has to come from somewhere. It comes down to what our taxpayers want for our kids.”
While a talking point of wanting to “provide a 21st-century education for our kids” was articulated by both Battershell and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Bobby Ott, a June 20 public meeting revealed further detail of items and programs for which the additional tax dollars would be used:
- A library improvement plan projected to cost $301,345 for 2013-14 and $175,245 for 2014-15. With TISD libraries’ average materials age from 1995, state guidelines listing the average age of materials from 1999 or newer as acceptable, 2001 or newer as recognized and 2003 or newer as exemplary are not being met. Per Ott, the goal is to reach acceptable levels.
- Upgraded science labs at a cost of $119,684.85 are reportedly needed in response to state-imposed unfunded mandates requiring additional science and cultural arts classes.
- With the 2014-15 school year bringing new required fine arts classes including visual art and media, theater art and media, music art and media along with dance art and media, TISD plans to expand its offerings with a middle school dance team, stomp program, mariachi band and folklorico dancing.
- Regarding student technology, the district is aiming to provide a Chromebook for all high school students, a laptop for every two middle school students, iPad Minis for every two students kindergarten through second grade and Chromebooks for every two students third through fifth grade.
- Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Scott Moger discussed $450,000 earmarked for TISD bus replacement. With an industry standard of replacing 15-year-old buses, Moger said of TISD’s 79 buses, 50 percent are 15 or more years in age, 25 percent are 20 years or more with only 25 percent 15 years or newer.
- And with TISD’s afterschool program likely to soon lose its funding by state tax dollars, this stands as another area for which local tax dollars are sought.
Many of the new tax dollars sought would seem to be classroom focused. TISD’s Snapshot 2011, district-provided data compiled the Texas Education Agency, suggests less than half of the district’s current revenue goes to classroom instruction.
The 83rd Texas Legislature’s regular session is now over, but throughout, the education industry’s demands for more money, less accountability and no competition (i.e., school choice) were in clear evidence. These efforts were aided by organizations like the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), a point especially obvious in the school choice debate.
One of the session’s greatest betrayals of Texas taxpayers came clearly at the hands of TASB, Texas Association of School Administrators, Texas Municipal League, Texas Association of Counties and a host of other taxpayer-funded organizations that helped torpedo SB 14 and HB 14 during the legislature’s regular session, bills that would have provided taxpayers with new transparency regarding local government spending and debt.
School district sponsored elections are often accompanied by a strong “for the children” campaign. The replication of these efforts across the state make them quite predictable.
Fueled by assistance from organizations like TASB and Texas School Public Relations Association (TSPRA), districts are well equipped with materials and direction on how to successfully mount efforts from bond elections to tax ratification elections. Local media is often helpful in perpetrating the school district-sponsored narrative. Other local officials as well as business leaders are strongly encouraged to follow suit or else risk community “team membership” status.
With this, taxpayers educating themselves and seeking information from a variety of sources becomes all the more important. In conjunction with TISD’s 2011 bond election, Temple taxpayers were encouraged to do their homework which means taking a look at a community’s total financial picture including local debt levels, another issue in major need of Texas taxpayer attention.
While becoming cliché, everytime someone suggests taking action for the children, we can no longer afford avoidance of a broader look at what we may be doing to those children. Beer budgets can no longer mindlessly support our collective champagne tastes.
With all elections, voters must work to become not just a “for” or “against” vote, but more importantly, an informed vote.