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Bonds: 'Death By a Thousand Cuts'

Even with Propositions 1 and 3 passing, AISD's election campaign appeared doomed from the start

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 17, 2013

Bonds: 'Death By a Thousand Cuts'

In most elections, creeping over 50% support is good enough. But in bonds, that's bad news, as the Austin Independent School District found out on May 11. With four bond packages on the ballot, support wavered around 50%, and the end result was that half the bonds passed and half failed. Now there's some serious soul-searching going on around the district after Saturday night's electoral rebuff.

The election was a tale of two halves. On Saturday evening, when early voting numbers came in, all four propositions were losing by between 3 and 7%. As election day numbers came in, there had been a reversal: A late get-out-the-vote push by bond advocates saw the numbers reverse. But at the end of the night, it was still a disappointing day for the district. Prop. 1, totaling $141 million for health, environment, equipment, and technology, and Prop. 3, worth $349 million for urgent repairs, both passed. But Prop. 2 and Prop. 4, totaling almost $400 million for new schools, arts, and athletics programs, went down. Most worryingly for the district, all were within margin of error of 50% approval – a troubling sign, since most previous bonds have passed by margins of two- or three-to-one.

Bonds: 'Death By a Thousand Cuts'

AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen tried to slap a happy face on the results. In a statement, she said, "While voters did not approve all of the propositions, they did agree that all of our schools need to be maintained and well-equipped to support the quality of education in our city. Propositions 1 and 3 will positively affect the quality of education for Austin students for many years to come."

But by Monday morning, the hangover was really starting to kick in, as education advocates counted the damage from the loss of Prop. 2 and Prop. 4. What went wrong? Was it the message? Was it community mistrust of AISD? Was it the bonds themselves? Or was it the larger anti-tax sentiment pushed by the right? As Board President Vince Torres told the media during a Monday evening post-mortem, anyone who thinks they know the one root reason of the results is premature at best.

What Went Wrong?

In fact, there's no single obvious and overwhelming reason why the bonds should have suffered such a rough fate. Instead, there's more than enough blame to go around. Lynda Rife, owner of campaign consultancy Rifeline, called it "a death by a thousand cuts." Since AISD is legally prevented from advocating for bonds, the advocacy is left to the Fix Austin Schools PAC, which hired Rife to work on its messaging and outreach. Behind the scenes, she said, "Our research told us that [Propositions] 2 and 4 were going to be really, really hard to pass, and we thought we could push through that by getting parents to vote. ... There's 86,000 students, and if their parents and teachers voted for this, they would have passed easily." That was a critical miscalculation. With no other major races on the ballot, turnout failed to hit 39,000, and much of the early voting was in Republican-leaning boxes.

Bonds: 'Death By a Thousand Cuts'

Drew Scheberle, the Greater Austin Cham­ber of Commerce's senior vice president for education and talent development, initially also put part of the blame on low turnout. In a statement, he wrote, "Those who thought someone else would solve this problem were mistaken. Every vote matters." However, the chamber's own support for the bonds has been flexible, with constant questioning about the wisdom of building new schools when some have empty desks. Scheberle even briefly withdrew chamber support on April 1 after the board did not accede to chamber demands to have a Facility Master Plan in place by June 30, 2014 (see "Meet the AISD Bonds," April 12). A few frantic phone calls later, and Scheberle reversed his reversal. But he's still sticking by that June 30, 2014 deadline. In his election night statement, he said, "The Austin Chamber looks forward to working with the Administration and school board to adopt a Master Facility Plan in the next 13 months."

There was also active opposition to the bonds, coming mostly from the conservative Travis County Taxpayers Union. After the results came in, the group, led by Tea Party activist Don Zimmerman, sent "thanks to the many activists who spent their own time and money battling the wasteful AISD bond proposals, and to our group of core donors." He added that, because of the defeat, "kids may have been saved $400 million in debt they could have been paying off for decades."

Unfortunately, they will not be spared from massive overcrowding, and that will continue to impact students and teachers. Education Austin President Ken Zarifis and his members put resources into the PAC, phone banking, and door-to-door campaigning. "We put out a lot of energy into this," he said, and unlike the chamber, "Education Austin's support was unconditional." When the final numbers came in, he said, "We got money for our highest needs – infrastructure and technology – but you can't ignore the two that were voted down." He called the end result "a statement by the community that they are concerned about district leadership."

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen
Photo by John Anderson

Trustee Robert Schneider sees it the same way. Carstarphen's top-down management style has resulted in a series of PR disasters – the Facilities Master Plan, IDEA Allan, Eastside Memorial – that colored the political landscape last November during trustee elections, and may have done so again over the weekend. When he looked at Saturday's results, he said, "My gut reaction is that this has more to do with the district and what it's trying to push forward, rather than the economy and the total amount of the bond."

For Schneider's fellow trustee Lori Moya, the larger political context was key. Unlike the city, county, or state, school districts have to go to voters every time they want to adjust their tax rates or issue more bonds. Austinites are already bracing for increases in their property taxes after last November's vote for the UT medical school, and Moya said the AISD request may have been a bond too far. As she put it, "We're the only option for voters to exercise their frustration."

What's In, What's Out

That doesn't mean the bonds themselves had nothing to do with the failure. Schneider had long voiced concerns about the structure of the bonds – most specifically folding $20 million to renovate the Ridgeview campus as a new single-sex boys' academy into the arts and athletics spending in Prop. 4. Schneider sees its inclusion as a poison pill. "I'm pretty convinced that if it had been just athletics and academics, the booster clubs and the arts community would have got that passed." Instead, he said, "The board's already received several emails that said, 'I voted against 4 or I voted against all of them, simply because of the school for young men.' "

Education Austin President Ken Zarifis
Education Austin President Ken Zarifis
Photo by John Anderson

Now all trustees are contending with what they lost on Saturday. In Moya's southeast Austin district, Prop. 2 and Prop. 4 both had funds for athletics and fine arts, with cash for weight rooms, dance rooms, and gyms – all of which, she said, "Need significant upgrading and repair." For the first time, the district would also have been able to put toilets at all high school outdoor athletics facilities. Moya said, "It has been a common complaint among family members and visitors who attend the campuses during district games." She added, "It may be a small thing, but it's a huge thing for someone needing a bathroom."

Schneider, on the other hand, was more sanguine about the impact on schools in his Southwestern area. There had been broad concern that some line items in the bonds were either absurdly high – such as $8 million for a feasibility study for a new high school – or made little sense. In Schneider's own district, new rooms were planned on the Mills, Bailey, and Bowie campuses, but there would be nowhere to put them without either violating the city's impervious cover restrictions or facing the added expense and difficulty of building up. "Those were part of Prop. 4, so they're not going to happen," he said, "but they wouldn't have happened anyway."

That may have been the biggest question on Saturday. Ultimately, Rife warned, bond voters are often motivated by self-interest and want to know what's in it for their neighborhood schools. For example, the biggest losses came in South Austin, where there is frustration about the district's longstanding failure to deliver on promises for a new high school. Behind the scenes, there has also been finger-pointing about Fix Austin Schools' strategy. Two campaign mailers caught heavy flak: one focusing on a fictional AISD student, Mia; the other placing much of the blame for AISD's financial straits on Gov. Rick Perry. The Mia flier became the centerpiece of a scathing editorial by the Austin American-Statesman, while Scheberle argued that the Perry mailer antagonized Republicans – a major voting bloc in the Southwest end of the district. Combined with the broken promises about a high school, that may have been a toxic combination for the bonds.

The Education of Voters

AISD Board President Vince Torres
AISD Board President Vince Torres
Photo by John Anderson

Rife agreed that the campaign was far from perfect, but said her hands were tied because her firm was brought on so late and given so few resources. While they were hired in mid-January, by spring break there was still only $3,000 in the PAC's war chest. Eventually there was $150,000 at her disposal, but it came so late that it could do little good. Most damagingly, she only received a campus-by-campus breakdown of what the bonds would pay for during the week of early voting. If she had more time to deliver that information to each school community, she argues, she would have had more time to finesse the message. Yet even if she had received that data in January, she suggested that still might have been too late; the district and its supporters could have spent the five years since the last bond highlighting the worst conditions – the collapsing drains, the leaking roofs, and the rows after rows of aging portables. She said, "Some of that needs to be shown before you even call an election."

Schneider was similarly unimpressed by how ill-prepared the district was for the bonds – especially since it has known for five years that an election was coming. For example, he noted that cost estimates for some athletics spending were still being worked on in May. He echoed Rife's concern that there had not been enough long-term waving of the red flag about the overwhelming need for renovations and extra classrooms: While the district cannot directly advocate for bonds, staff and the district's Citizens' Bond Advisory Committee could have done more basic education. He said, "I don't blame the CBAC, but it's pretty clear that the district staff did not follow through." By the Monday after the election, he was still waiting to find out exactly what voters had approved for his district, because he had yet to see a proposition-by-proposition breakdown of that spending: "I asked for that in the March time frame and never received it."

So where does the district go now? Schneider said he has already received calls from his constituents, wondering how soon urgent renovations and additions can go back out before voters. Yet Moya said it's too early to talk about going out for another bond, especially when the district is still mulling over the possibility of a tax roll­back election to cover rising operational costs. And while Schneider had long warned that the district needed money for salaries and to fully implement the Any Given Child arts initiative (see "Learning Desire," Oct. 12, 2012), after Saturday's results, he said, "The board putting forward a TRE is not going to be the wisest thing to do."

However, with so many pending and pressing expenses, Torres said, "At some point, we are going to have to go out for another bond; we are going to have to go out for a TRE." Before the district can do that, Torres expects a full review of both the process of building a bond and the priorities upon which the district operates. When staff starts working on its Facilities Utilization Plan in June, he said, "We have to put everything on the table."

That's a political minefield. When it comes to putting kids into buildings, the ugliest fight brewing is one the district has been putting off for years – redrawing attendance zones. Carstarphen argued that these latest results mean that Austinites have changed direction from two years ago, when the clear message to the Facility Master Plan Task Force was to leave attendance zones alone. However, Zarifis takes a more brutally pragmatic approach, and said that the failure of the overcrowding relief in Prop. 2 "means we're going to have to approach overcrowding in a different way." It's a two-part problem: AISD's open transfer policy sees students move regularly from school to school, while school boundaries are as inviolate as international borders. Moya agreed with Zarifis, and said, "We have to find creative solutions that don't involve additions." While there are few clear lessons to be learned from the weekend, she added, the results were "a clear mandate that we need to reconsider our transfer process and boundaries."

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