West Lake Hills Under Siege

Urbane Mud-Slinging

Then, on August 20, opponents set up a tent and dispersed campaign materials at the annual Westlake High School football scrimmage and Meet the Team barbecue. They distributed signs, banners, posters, bumper stickers, and buttons to curious onlookers. A brouhaha ensued. School officials, including Athletics Director Ebbie Neptune and Interim Superintendent Jerry Molinoski, asked the campaigners to refrain from unauthorized political activity on school property. Bond opponents told school officials to call the cops if they wanted them to leave. (Call the cops? Are you kidding?) The following Monday, August 24, the school board called an emergency meeting and press conference to address concerns and outline rules for political activities on school property. The "refined" EISD guidelines reiterate a requirement for prior approval from the superintendent for any political activity on school property, and impose certain time, place, and manner restrictions on that activity. There have been reports of widespread sign stealing, house wrapping, and egging in West Lake Hills. One Prop. 1 supporter woke up to find a "For Sale" sign posted in her yard where her "Vote Yes" sign stood the night before. Nasty. Why would educated, genteel folks backslide into boorish behavior and thuggish polemic over a bond election? West Lake Hills is divided by antagonistic visions of the community's future, and fundamentally opposing perspectives on how they should cope with growth and change.

A simplified profile of the opposing factions would pit the school board (sans Shields), the administration, and super-involved Educa-tional Excellence for Eanes parents versus the Campaign for Academic Excellence in Eanes, Chaps Club athletic boosters, the tax-wary, and the remnants of the Eighth and Ninth Grade Center army. Prop. 1 supporters charge that the opposition is only concerned with keeping Westlake High School big so the coaches have the deepest possible talent pool from which to refortify the 5-A powerhouse Chaparrals. The opposition counters that Prop. 1 is a sour grapes boondoggle perpetrated by parents of kids who can't hack life in the big city. Proponents argue that two high schools will mean twice as many opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities. Opponents have shouted out loud throughout the entire battle that dividing the mighty Westlake High into two high schools will lead to mediocrity for both.

Brad Shields is the lone member of the EISD school board
who opposes building a new high school.

photograph by John Anderson

While each side's assessment of the other may contain a kernel of truth, the real story lies in the lengths to which both sides will go to win. Pyrotechnics of this caliber are usually employed only for scorched earth corporate litigation and hotly contested statewide elections. Each side has crafted sophisticated strategies to challenge the quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis, and assumptions underlying the other's position.

The first issue is tax. Proponents argue that rejecting Proposition 1 will do nothing to avert an impending tax crisis for EISD. Opponents argue that approving Proposition 1 will overburden the district and force Eanes into a constitutional tax emergency. The Texas Constitution limits local property tax to $1.50 per $100 property valuation for school maintenance and operation (M&O). Texas' ballyhooed "Robin Hood" school finance law allows "rich" school districts to keep M&O tax on residential property up to $280,000 assessed value. M&O tax collected on assessed value greater than $280,000 is remitted to the state and redistributed to poor school districts. EISD is approaching the constitutional cap on M&O tax. The majority of the M&O budget (near 80%) goes to pay teachers' salaries. EISD's M&O tax is expected to reach $1.53 per $100 valuation -- 3 cents per $100 over the constitutional limit -- by the year 2000 just to keep pace with projected enrollment growth, without any new construction. Because the school district will exceed the constitutional cap regardless of Proposition 1's outcome, everyone agrees Eanes needs M&O tax relief. Amending the constitutional M&O cap would require approval by Texas voters.

Constitutional amendments are tricky, sticky, and highly unlikely. The second alternative would be to seek legislative relief for the maximum amount of M&O tax "Robin Hood" lets the districts keep. Political junkies familiar with the school finance debate believe Gov. George Bush and the legislature will endorse a plan that would allow property-rich districts to keep the M&O tax collected on property valued up to $320,000 -- a $40,000 increase over present levels. That would free up a chunk of cash in EISD where the average assessed residential property value exceeds $295,000. Nonetheless, Proposition 1 opponents claim that building a new high school will hasten a headlong confrontation with the constitutional cap.

Shields, also a lobbyist in his spare time, maintains that the overhead and administrative costs associated with running a separate facility would cause a budgetary meltdown that would result in an academic budget crunch, and that the legislature may not expand the M&O cap. Austin attorney Robby Alden, who is intimately involved in the imbroglio, contends that any expansion at Westlake High that is not financed by bond debt, such as addition of more portable buildings, would have to be financed from the M&O budget, thereby exacerbating the M&O problem. Trustee Donna Howard, school board secretary and finance committee chair, addressed M&O cap problems in the July 9 issue of the Westlake Picayune: "If we're to hit the cap, this district is fortunate enough to have talented people who can help us by finding alternative funding sources and through creative fund raising," Howard proclaimed. "We won't be slashing courses and salaries from the budget." From these arguments we can conclude: 1) Predicting the Legislature is like reading smoke signals in a West Texas dust storm; and 2) the same numbers sure sound different coming out of different people's mouths.

The second issue involves high school enrollment projections. Proposition 1 proponents claim that district growth is driving the second school push. The school board claims that high school students perform better in schools larger than 600 but smaller than 2,000 based upon empirical studies. Westlake High School enrollment has already topped 2,200. Furthermore, consultants EISD hired to study a range of growth indicators reported that Westlake High School could expect peak enrollment of 2,700 students by 2007.

Proposition 1 proponents believe that figure alone justifies building a second high school. "We don't want to turn Westlake into another Plano," explained school board president Jeanetta Sanders, referring to the 6,955-student mega-school north of Dallas. Interested Eanes constituents requested further review by an outside source to determine whether the assumptions on which the consultants based their report were sound. Ryan Robinson, the city of Austin's chief demographer, reviewed the study and reported that the methodology was sound, but the projections were conservative, meaning that the projected enrollment should be somewhat higher.

Still, Shields has gone on record saying he believes EISD's enrollment projections do not support the decision to build another high school. He notes that the consulting demographer later revised his original growth predictions downward, and says he believes that growth rates in Eanes will flatten out over the next 10 years. Moreover, he has indicated that, even if growth continues at current rates, he would not object to having 3,000 students in Westlake High. The rest of the board, though, feels that West Lake Hills will continue to grow at a vigorous rate. And Sanders remains convinced that EISD growth will support two large 4-A high schools in the near future, and that two 1,500-student schools are clearly the superior choice.

If driving south of the river on MoPac between 4-6pm is any indication, they're not facing a shortage of people out there. Growth seems to be a foregone conclusion -- only the rate remains an issue. So in the end, the battle over projected enrollment, with dueling experts and divergent assumptions, only illustrates the fundamental disagreement within the community over when a high school has grown too big.

Crowded Middle Schools

A number of parents are also miffed that they won't have the opportunity to vote for a Ninth Grade Center. Tax hawks have expressed interest in the less expensive alternative to overcrowding, and hard-core opponents have co-opted this element, though no one has promulgated a formal Ninth Grade Center proposal. Opponents feel the board deliberately left the option off the ballot because they had already decided that building a new $45 million high school is the only option to address overcrowding problems.

Shields doesn't believe that Prop. 1 adequately addresses middle school overcrowding, and the opposition believes that either a Ninth Grade Center, or the Eighth and Ninth Grade Center proposal resurrected from 1995, would better suit EISD's needs. In support of this position, Campaign for Academic Excellence in Eanes claims on its Web site that young people are most susceptible to peer pressure, and most likely to begin using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, in the eighth and ninth grades. Sanders counters that virtually all empirical studies nationwide indicate that young people are most likely to begin using alcohol, tobacco, and drugs when they get drivers licenses at age 16, in the 10th grade. Sanders further explained that drug and alcohol use among high school students is a function of access, mobility, and money, and the Campaign's scare tactics used in support of a Ninth Grade Plan are both unsubstantiated and deceitful. Furthermore, Sanders claims that removing the ninth grade campuses from the rest of the high school campus would result in a curriculum nightmare.

Prop. 1 opponents eagerly point out that Eanes has the second highest debt-service-to-total-expenditure ratio in Texas -- over 21%. They argue that a Ninth Grade Center would address overcrowding without doubling the debt, and the debt service ratio. Proponents contend that high debt-service-to-total-expenditure ratio is not unusual in high growth districts, and that the debt-to-assessed-value ratio is the more useful number in debating relative financial health. EISD's debt-to-assessed-value ratio is 1.5%, compared to 1.9% statewide, and over 2% nationwide. The relative strength of the arguments is easily lost among all the hyphens and decimal points, but the point is clear. Proponents will gladly incur the debt and pay the price for a second high school, and opponents will fight it tooth and nail.

As for Saturday's vote, Jeanetta Sanders expects a margin of victory inside three percentage points. She and the other school board members call this bond election a watershed event that will define the future of education in West Lake Hills. Brad Shields says the issues are fiscal responsibility and academic standards. The Westlake Picayune has published scores of letters to the editor over the past few months. Westlake High students have written impassioned letters and circulated petitions in support of their beloved alma mater. The debate has seen the departure of a well-respected superintendent, and the resignation of a school board trustee. Concerned parents have organized two political action committees and raised well over $40,000 to wage battle for the minds of the voters. Lines have been drawn in the limestone that will continue to divide this community for some time.

Detractors may muse that the West Lake imbroglio is nothing more than rich folks fussing over drill team, debate club, and football championships, but the truth is, the Westlake community is passionate about political decisions that influence their children's futures. Growth in Greater Austin and EISD appears inevitable. Every kid deserves a chance to participate in high school activities. There is no better investment than education. New schools will continue to crop up. When and how Westlake deals with growth issues has less to do with fancy signs and bumper stickers than the willingness to face the future, accept change, and work together.

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