'Surely We're All Worth a Nickel?'

Will AISD flinch from tax election?

'Surely We're All Worth a Nickel?'

Austin Independent School District has one of the lowest tax rates in Central Texas and in its own recent history. Meanwhile, its teachers are among the state's lowest paid. Now the AISD Board of Trustees looks set to reject a plan to ask voters for a nickel tax rate raise tonight because they're afraid of a tax rollback election.

Last Thursday, the board held a public meeting to discuss the possibility of a five cent per $100 of property valuation increase. As explained in this week's issue, there will be a 2.5 cent increase on the interest and sinking tax rate that pays off bonds (since property values dropped by 3.7%, that actually means most people will see no change in their tax bill, and because it's about covering debts, it doesn't require a vote.) What the district is looking at is a 5 cent raise on the maintenance and operations section of the bill (that's the bit that pays for daily operations.)

Or rather, they were until Thursday, when the board suddenly got an advanced case of cold feet. That's even though Austin Interfaith, Liveable Cities, Education Austin, the AFL-CIO and LULAC Council 95 all back the raise (which would negate the property tax value fall, pay for a 3% teacher pay raise, allow for extra investment in East Austin schools, and continue funding for Pre-K education, which the state will no longer cover because it's changed the eligibility rules.)

Coming into the meeting, three board members – Sam Guzman, Lori Moya, and Annette LaVoi – looked like solid "yes" votes, with at least two possible extra ayes from the dias. However, Robert Schneider and Cheryl Bradley put forth the argument that everyone else is suffering due to the recession, so they would have a hard time backing the call. Christine Brister proposed pushing the vote back to next year, to give the board more time to make their case, while Board President Mark Williams and Vice-President Vince Torres both came out as pretty solid "nays."

No-one was saying there wasn't a need for pay raises or targeted investments, but there was discussion of alternate schemes: Getting rid of historic property tax breaks, the recently-approved federal jobs cash (which there are no guarantees will trickle down to Austin) and further budget scrubs to free up cash. While there is arguably the strongest argument for that last option (Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Abram was referring to the budget as nearly locked in May, and that version of the budget had barely shifted since the Spring), Education Austin President Louis Malfaro argued it will not be enough. He has already backed district cuts that have seen some of his members lose their jobs, and he argued true fiscal prudency requires targeted cuts and targeted spending. He said, "If we're going to fund the strategic plan, let's get started now, not someday." He added, "To think that you can cut your way to excellence is stupid."

The biggest procedural problem for the board came when Bradley asked Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to make a recommendation – something the board came to expect under former Superintendent Pat Forgione. Carstarphen said that she'd "simply been collecting information" and been trying to "educate people" on the issue and "summarize things" for people. She added, "I am not prepared to make a recommendation to the board. I'm not even sure that's really what the board wants me to do." However, Torres had said before the meeting that that was exactly what the board was expecting.

This all left Guzman furious, especially since everyone agreed on the district's needs. With the potential election not until November, "Two months is plenty of time to get the information out, if we really want to do it," he fumed at his fellow board members, "so that's not a good excuse, folks."

Who decided that, out of all local government entities, school districts were such fair game as a political and financial kickball? No other entity – cops, firefighters, councils – have the same kind of down-to-a-single-child oversight, and then have to go on bended knee for a tax rate increase. It's an almost impossible conundrum for districts.

But it doesn't help that the board flinched when two entities – the Austin-American Statesman and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce – have come out against the tax increase. "If the business community is not with us, that's a problem," said Williams, who had already voiced concerns about not having the Statesman editorial board on their side.

That's the same Statesman that the board repeatedly (if cautiously) called out for inaccurately describing the increase as "hefty" and a "huge tax hike."

That's the same chamber that nudged the board towards the insufficient 2008 tax rate increase of 3.9 cents. At the time, Education Austin president Louis Malfaro warned the board that they'd be back at the ballot box sooner rather than later.

After the meeting, the chamber released a statement in which it said it "continues to ask trustees to adopt greater efficiencies – and certainly not to dig a deeper fiscal hole – before considering a tax rate election." The statement adds, "All trustees would benefit from hearing your views on a potential tax rate election, in particular Trustees Sam Guzman, Annette Lovoi, Tamala Barksdale, Lori Moya, and Robert Schneider" (which, coincidentally, is the list of trustees they have down as definite or potential yes votes for a tax election.)

However, other voices from the business community were less oblique. Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance waved the $50 million that downtown businesses pay in AISD property taxes over their heads, while attorney John Blazier (who has an elementary school named after him) threatened the board that "the business community will spend money to oppose you."

The brutal reality is that, even if the board pushes ahead with the tax increase and it gets voter approval in November, it will still do very little to help keep teacher salaries competitive. Talk of incentive pay for a few and complete packages is all fine and dandy, but baseline pay is what pays for groceries and rent. Oh, and by the way, the district wouldn't have to talk about health benefits if the business community nationally hadn't spent decades sabotaging plans for universal health care.

More importantly, it will do nothing to help the even worse paid classified and para-professional employees, like bus drivers and cleaners. Chavel Lopez, executive director of the South-West Public Workers Union, told the board, "Austin Independent School District is keeping families in poverty." He was asking for a 7% pay raise (sounds like a lot, but not when one realizes that we're talking about some of the worst paid workers in the county) and for the board to provide parity in uniform allowances.

The AISD Board of Trustees meets tonight, 7pm, Aug. 23, at the AISD Carruth Administration Center, 1111 W. Sixth, to vote on the 2010-11 budget.

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AISD, Education Austin, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Louis Malfaro, Tax Rollback Election, Pat Forgione, Meria Carstarphen, Annette LaVoi, Mark Williams, Austin Interfaith, Liveable Cities, AFL-CIO, LULAC Council 95

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