Naked City

For Rich Or For Poor

The upcoming May 6 election is an especially appropriate time for Austin voters, particularly parents with children in public schools, to grouse about the choices on the ballot. That's because it's up to voters to decide how, not whether, the Austin Independent School District will relinquish $33 million to poorer school districts, as mandated by Chapter 41 of the state's education code. But because of the enigmatic ballot language set by the state education agency, AISD officials are worried that taxpayers may not select any method at all, believing that "sharing the wealth" is a proposal they can damn well refuse.

They can't, however, and if they reject both of the options on the ballot -- to either send the $33 million to the state, or directly to another district -- AISD will be forced to forfeit a portion of its tax base to another district, probably forever, even if future enrollment jumps, or the district ceases to be "property-rich."

The Austin school district fell subject to Chapter 41, also known as the "share-the-wealth" law, when the total taxable value of its property base rose above $295,000 per student according to tax appraisal estimates for 2000-'01. Under the code, school districts that exceed that limit must hand over a portion of their tax receipts to poorer districts.

But, since local autonomy is so revered in this state, school districts are also required to choose the terms of their surrender. School boards may choose to consolidate their district with a poorer one, or to release property from their tax base to be attached to another district. Or, they can place before voters three more options:

  • share their tax base with another local taxing entity, such as Austin Community College or the city of Austin;

  • send a cash payment to the state, or

  • cut a check directly to a poorer district.

    In February, the Austin school board voted to place those last two options on the May 6 ballot. Administrators say they'd be happy with either proposal passing; if both do, they'd probably choose to send the money directly to the state.

    And if Austin voters say no to both choices? The Texas education commissioner then takes a carving knife to the AISD property-tax base, exacting however much is necessary to bring the district's wealth down to less than $295,000 per student. First on the list, in all likelihood, would be Motorola's $1.3 billion parcel, then IBM's property, worth $315 million. That's property AISD will likely never see again, even if the district's wealth relative to student enrollment eventually drops AISD out of Chapter 41 status.

    So far, no interest group has suggested that the Austin school district should do anything other than put the check in the mail. Strategies to avoid Chapter 41 status, such as consolidation with another district, or breaking AISD into smaller districts, are politically messy, and, in the latter case, require heavy voter turnout.

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