AISD Bonds: Moving Parts
Half a percent of registered voters cast ballots on first day of early voting
Austin ISD's May 11 bond election got off to a surprisingly brisk start this week – well, brisk by the standards of an off-year vote with nothing else on the ballot. Slightly over one percent of the district's 436,587 registered voters turned out by the second day of early voting. Meanwhile, there was plenty of drama behind the scenes, with the departure of one of the bond's key architects, and two legal appeals against the package being turned down.
On April 25, AISD Executive Director of Facilities Paul Turner announced that he is retiring to spend more time with his family. "My mom is about to have her 90th birthday," he said, "and I have a 5-year-old grandson that I see several times a year, but I'd like to be able to spend a little time with him while he's still a kid." A 40-year AISD veteran, Turner spent the last decade as the district's point man on bond proposals. With the vote on AISD's four bond propositions, totaling $892 million, just a couple of weeks away, Turner said he understands "the implication was that I was booking [it] right before the election." However, he said, "The timing of the announcement may have been better if I would have waited until May 13, but the main thing that was going through my head was that, if I wait 'til then and I'm leaving in June, that really doesn't give time to get [the post] advertised and start looking at replacements."
AISD Board President Vince Torres praised Turner's contribution to the district, but was confident that his exit will not affect the May 11 election, as Turner doesn't leave until June 31. Even after his retirement, he has offered to return part time, much as former Director of Construction Management Curt Shaw has for the current bond effort. However, Turner's exit will undoubtedly have an impact on the district's long-term planning processes. One of the few senior members of former Superintendent Pat Forgione's cabinet to remain under Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, he has been pivotal in constructing the last three bonds: 2004's $519.5 million construction and land purchase package, the $343 million interim bond passed in 2008 for technology and renovations, and the current measure before voters. All three are effectively linked, with one year's wish-list project becoming the next bond's overdue deferred maintenance. "There are a few bodies here and there that I probably know about that nobody else does," said Turner, adding, "I'm sure over time that transition will be complete."
Arguably, this week Torres has had bigger fish to fry than the exit of one employee. In a normal year, AISD bonds pass with little fuss or fight. Turner could only remember one district proposition failing in his entire four-decade tenure at the district. But Torres is concerned about how the district has painted the bigger financial picture. While the bond total is higher than in 2004 and 2008, he said, "The amount of money that it actually costs the taxpayers is actually less than the other two combined. I'm not so sure that message has gotten out as much as we'd like it to."
The district appears to have fought off direct attempts from the right to cancel the election. The Travis County Taxpayers Union, led by Tea Party activist and GOP perennial Don Zimmerman, formed last year to fight the Central Health medical school property tax hike. On April 26, TCTU appeared before Travis County Civil Judge Orlinda Naranjo, demanding a temporary restraining order blocking the AISD election, on grounds that the ballot language violated the Texas Education Code. They had also attempted to derail the district's voter education program by filing a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission against Superintendent Carstarphen and Anderson High Principal Donna Houser. The group argued that the district's advertisements announcing the date and structure of the bond broke state rules on employees lobbying for bonds. However, both the TEC and Naranjo rejected the filings as being without merit. While the TEC does not comment on rulings, Naranjo found that the district's advertising was necessary to comply with state law. AISD Media Relations Coordinator Antonio Lujan said, "The statute says that we're supposed to purchase advertisements in the sense of factual information."
But opposition to the school bond cannot be written off solely to posturing by Republican front groups. Last November's board elections became a community referendum on Carstarphen, and the 2013 bond election is shaping up the same way. If voters have too little faith in her ability to manage their funds, that could endanger dollars for essential investments. Torres argued that having new trustees elected last November should reassure community members: "Those folks have all come out in support of the bond, and they certainly know what their constituents want."
Behind the scenes, some education advocates are gravely concerned about the fate of Prop. 4, for academic initiatives, fine arts, and athletics. Buried in the $169 million request is $20 million to refit the Ridgeview campus as a young men's academy. Back in February, Trustees Ann Teich and Robert Schneider failed to convince their fellow board members that the controversial measure should be in its own proposition, rather than risk scuppering essential investments. However, Torres urged voters to look at the big picture. He said, "When they understand how all the packages fit together, all the people I've spoken to understand why the proposals are the way they are."