School Bond Proposals Roll to Victory

All six bond propositions to build, renovate, and expand AISD schools pass

Austin voters strongly approved a $519.5 million school bond proposal Saturday in an election for which a whopping 7% of the electorate bothered to cast ballots. ("Strongly," in other words, is a relative term.) Approval for the six propositions, which will raise the property taxes on a $157,000 house roughly $6 a month, ranged from 74% for the major school-renovation proposition (Proposition 2), down to 61% for the more controversial proposal to build a performing arts center and a middle school in Southwest Austin (Proposition 5).

The vote marked the end of a year and a half of planning and a couple months of politicking; now the real work begins. Over the next five years, the district will build eight new schools and 92 classroom additions, and renovate and upgrade all 107 AISD campuses. The construction ball technically starts rolling immediately: AISD has already begun soliciting requests for qualifications from architecture and design firms for its major projects, and external repairs that won't interfere with classes (such as roof renovation) will likely get under way by spring. But for the most part, the guys in the hard hats won't hit the schools in full force until next summer.

Much of the year will be spent planning. First, the district must adopt a master plan (the administration will submit its recommendations to the board Sept. 27) that lays out what gets fixed first and ensures that no part of town is slighted its fair share of fuss, mess, and upheaval. In addition, the district has to hammer out with the labor community how much the guys in the hard hats get paid. In August, the Central Labor Council threatened to oppose the bonds if the district didn't update its wage scale, stuck at 1988 levels. The district hastily agreed to form a committee (including labor representatives) to study local wages and benefits and come up with a new scale – but insisted that its first priority was getting the bonds passed. "Now that they've got the bond passed, we're looking forward to moving ahead on this," said Michael Murphy, business manager of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and one of the three labor representatives who will serve on the nine-member committee.

In addition to ensuring that AISD pays "prevailing" (market-average) wages, unions also want to see the committee tackle health benefits and the use of apprentices. Murphy predicts that the survey will urge AISD to provide full health benefits for both workers and their families. In addition, he argues that AISD must adopt contract language that defines an "apprentice" as someone enrolled in a U.S. Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship program. Otherwise, contractors can abuse the term to pay workers less (apprentices can earn as little as 50% of the wages of a journeyman) without providing them any real training. "If that language isn't there, contractors can hire one journeyman and call everyone else apprentices," he said.

Perhaps more surprisingly, another task that many say needs to start immediately is planning for the next bond proposal. Members of the committee that planned the current package complained that their job could have been much easier if the district assessed its facility needs on an ongoing basis. In response, the board will incorporate regular attention to facilities in the long-term strategic plan trustees expect to unveil by next summer. "We want to do a better job of looking forward instead of always looking in the rear-view mirror," said trustee John Fitzpatrick.

Bond manager Paul Turner says the district administration is already working on a database to track current and probable future needs, such as when a given system (like a roof or an HVAC system) is likely to need repair or replacement. "We hope to have it up and running by the next bond," he said.

Trustees also say they want to tackle an issue that has arisen time and time again over bond packages: the extent to which school placement drives Austin's growth, and whether AISD can do more to encourage density rather than sprawl. The dip in support for Proposition 5, for example, likely stems from concerns about whether the far southwest really needed a new middle school when other, more central, middle schools already have excess capacity. While trustees say they want to respond to these concerns, they say they're also in a hard position: By the time schools are built, roads, utilities, and other infrastructure over which they have no control are already in place. "AISD doesn't have any kind of rule-making authority that allows us, for example, to affect zoning," said trustee Robert Schneider. "The best we can do is make our needs known to the city."

However, Schneider also points out that the board could (and wants to) work more closely with the city to plan schools' role in long-term growth management. He was among a group of trustees who discussed possible models for greater collaboration in a meeting with city officials last week. But for all its concern for improving the bond process in the next go-round, trustees still have quite a task in making sure this one is done right. Their first job is to put together a citizens' oversight group that will weigh in on how the district handles bond implementation. "We made a commitment to the voters that we would spend their $519.5 million wisely," said Fitzpatrick. "So appointing a strong, independent citizens' oversight committee is an important part of keeping our compact with Austin voters and taxpayers."

AISD Bond Election Results

(Yes / No)

Proposition 1: $183.6 million (71.9% / 28.1%)
New schools + classroom additions

Proposition 2: $201.1 million (73.9% / 26.1%)
Renovations + technology

Proposition 3: $53.9 million (72.7% / 27.3%)
Safety/security, low-emission buses, etc.

Proposition 4: $12.8 million (67.9% / 32.1%)
Athletic facilities

Proposition 5: $44.6 million (60.8% / 39.3%)
SW middle school + performing arts center

Proposition 6: $23.5 million (70.0% / 30.0%)
Debt refinancing

Total votes cast: 26,369 (7% turnout)

Early vote: 8,661 (32.8% of total)

Election day: 17,708 (67.8% of total)

All six propositions did better in early voting than on election day, substantially so in the case of Proposition 5.

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public schools, Austin ISD, bond election, central labor council, prevailing wages, John Fitzpatrick

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