Naked City

AISD Voters Stay Home, Again

By the end of the early-voting period on Tuesday, well under 10,000 people had cast ballots in the $520 million AISD bond election, despite the fact that the district ran polls for more than three weeks at all 84 AISD elementary and high school campuses, as well as at many high-traffic businesses, like Home Depot. Voters can still cast ballots on the six propositions, which would fund eight new schools and repair and renovate the rest to varying degrees, on Saturday, Sept. 11, in their regular precinct voting locations.

While it isn't exactly a sign of a healthy democracy that so few Austinites are casting ballots, neither is it shocking: Only about 40,000 people turned out for the last bond election in 2000. Peck Young, the political director of the Committee for Austin's Children, the PAC promoting the package, said the district timed the election so that only those Austinites who follow school issues would vote. "You make these stand-alone elections so that it's the people who give a damn who vote," he said. "The good thing about this election is you won't have any uninformed voters casting ballots."

In other words, when ballot propositions are rolled into a general election – such as the Capital Metro commuter-rail proposal slated for November – many voters who show up to cast ballots in high-profile races, like the presidential contest, end up making snap decisions on propositions they know little about. (Confusing ballot language often doesn't help). Young said the early vote somewhat followed socioeconomic lines – "strong" turnout for a polling site in an East Austin school meant 25-30 ballots, while West Austin schools might see 35-40.

More important, though, were local efforts to get out the vote. "The schools where voting's terrible are the ones that don't have parent committees," he said. He added that the amount a school had to gain from the six initiatives made no difference – for example, at Norman Elementary, which would receive $3.6 million in repairs and a new school nearby to relieve overcrowding, "they're not voting worth a hoot."

A few nonprofit groups have been working to increase turnout, such as a church-based GOTV effort by Austin Interfaith and a phone bank by labor unions, which have endorsed all the bonds. Austin Voices for Education and Youth, a group that works to promote greater involvement in public schools, helped a team of "youth mobilizers" research and plan a campaign to increase turnout without endorsing either way.

The bonds have faced little organized effort to turn out opposing voters who may fear that new suburban schools will increase sprawl, or who may resent that the package will increase AISD property taxes (by about $6 a month for the owner of a median-priced $157,000 home). The South Austin Democrats, for example, narrowly voted to oppose propositions 1 and 5, which would fund new schools over the aquifer (and over the rest of Austin as well), but have not vigorously campaigned to turn out the nays. "We had hoped the district would be more responsive to our concerns and we wouldn't have to be out there politicking," said SAD head Jeff Jack, the most visible opponent of the AISD bond package.

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Austin ISD, school bonds, Peck Young, Committee for Austin's Children, Norman Elementary, early voting, South Austin Democrats, Jeff Jack

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