Demand and Supply
Austin ISD chews another bond proposal
On Monday night, Jan. 28, after 600 hours of meetings, 70 hours of site visits, and 14 staff presentations, the Citizens' Bond Advisory Committee made its recommendations to the Austin Independent School District board of trustees on what should and shouldn't be included in an interim bond-election package, proposed for May. But the CBAC's strongest message to the board was that the district needs to do better long-term planning – and the board agreed.
Before the presentation, board President Mark Williams stressed that part of the reason for the citizens' committee was that it could bring greater public consultation to the process and that he had fully expected it to return with a bigger wish list than suggested by the initial recommendations. "Demand exceeds supply, as it always does, of what people want to get fixed," Williams said, adding that the trustees would have considered whatever the committee had brought them.
What the committee did bring came in three parts: solid recommendations; proposals for additional projects added late in the process, which members supported but did not have accurate cost estimates for; and a list of long-term concerns, such as land acquisition for future schools, which the board needs to think about now.
In total, the items on the CBAC list come to $233 million, meaning an estimated property-tax increase of $13 a year for each $100,000 of appraised value. Some of the items were mandated by the Legislature last session, such as new computers to allow online testing by 2010 and new labs for the extra year of math and science now required for high school graduation. Some were driven by academic need, like replacing temporary classrooms at Barrington, Hart, and Langford elementary schools with permanent structures. Others were the result of systemwide need, like building a new central cold-storage facility. Items like these, committee Tri-Chair Amy Wong Mok told the board, were so vital that "indecision is not an option." But she also said the committee believed 3½ months had not been enough time to gather and assess the information for a limited bond. Their work had in fact revealed more work to be done that they described as critical to the future of the district.
Hard and Soft Expenses
In the CBAC's last meeting, on Jan. 22, the question of process loomed large. Twelve days earlier, the bulk of the final recommendations seemed determined, with almost $250 million tentatively approved, but two subsequent public forums upset that certainty. The committee heard stories of decaying bathrooms and massive overcrowding. McCallum High supporters made a direct appeal, saying that its crumbling theatre and collapsing clubhouse urgently need repair. Murchison Middle and Anderson High asked for new classrooms. Commenting on what he increasingly saw as a flawed process, committee member Mark Yznaga told his colleagues there had been "tactical errors in not being open to the community that led to this being a very rushed effort."
Patrick Wentworth echoed the concerns of many of his fellow committee members when he said, "We need more time to go over this than we were given," effectively questioning the timing of the May 10 election. On the one hand, suggestions were made to cut back the bond only to legislative mandates or where failure to act would place the district out of compliance with state health and safety or electricity management regulations. Other members, by contrast, proposed turning the $200 million-$300 million interim bond into a $500 million full bond. There were suggestions to delay until November or even ask the board for permission to stay around for an extra year and put together a bigger, more considered bond in 2009.
The biggest sum and the greatest contention surrounded the late addition of the technology-needs budget. When the bond proposal was first discussed in 2006, it was supposed to be entirely a minitechnology package, but as the projects swelled, the technology component was moved off the bond, and the district briefly considered paying for it out of maintenance and operations funds. On Dec. 11, it was reintroduced to the committee as an urgent requirement under the new legislation. So, although it had been the original inspiration for the bond, the committee was unaware it was coming, and plans for new housing for administrative services were canceled to make way for it.
Most of the original $64 million requested was classified as "instructional," including teacher laptops and new classroom presentation systems. In the final recommendations, the sum had risen to $69 million, partly because the committee asked information services to put some items back in and partly because the replacement cycle was shifted from three to four years. But again, the committee questioned the long-term planning: With only 12 information-technology facilitators and 10 repair technicians districtwide, members warned that extra cash in the maintenance and operations budget would be needed to keep the system running long-term.
With the planned shift to online testing, staff expect to replace the current emphasis on computer labs with laptops and a mobile cart system – a move that would require adding wireless networks to 26 campuses. This wasn't the only time-sensitive demand: IT firm Pearson School Systems announced that, as of 2012, it will no longer provide support for SASI, the district's student record system. Staff estimate converting to a replacement system and rolling it out districtwide would take two to three years. With a projected life span for most classroom equipment of three to five years, much of that equipment would be obsolete before the bond that bought it was paid off. Even so, these bond items would only get the district up to state education specs: It could take further money to implement online testing, because the Texas Education Agency has still to confirm all the technical specifications. "This bond only moves us in the right direction; it's not the online solution. The ball's back in the state's court on that," said AISD's executive director of information services and technology, Gray Salada.
Foretelling the Future
Board member Vincent Torres, who sat on the 2004 CBAC, sees the bond as driven by unavoidable demands, both of critical repairs and legislative pressures. But the committee's experience has also raised the question of planning to offset some of those critical repairs. "If we had a long-term process, some of these things would be on our radar screens," he said. "But we're always going to have some things that are going to hit us."
There have been some steps toward a new process. In 2004, AISD had planned its next large bond proposal for 2010 and is currently developing a more centralized system for gathering information on urgent repairs, major renovations, and equipment replacement. Depending on the final package (and the election results), the interim bond could effectively push the next election back to 2012, and the data collected and recommendations made now could factor into decisions then. While the district is bound by legislation restricting the tax burden on appraised value and how much it can pay in interest per dollar raised, there are no formal limits on how often a bond issue can occur or how big it can be. But it would be almost impossible for the district to have big bonds too regularly without alienating the tax-paying electorate and damaging its bond rating. "There are no limitations other than good common sense," Director of Facilities Paul Turner said.
It does mean that not everything can be funded immediately. The CBAC kept to its original instructions and didn't recommend funding every proposed project. One of the highest profile casualties was a proposed elementary school at the new Mueller development; while the CBAC supports its eventual construction, the school was not included in the recommendations because capacity remains in surrounding elementaries. Mueller stakeholders don't agree. Jim Walker, of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition, says the fast-growing development needs the new school soon, and during citizens' communications before the CBAC presentation to the board, a representative of developer Catellus repeated its offer of 10 acres for the school. "It's been in the planning, the initial numbers of families support it, and the omission is concerning for us," Walker said.
The board and the committee agreed that the need for extra schools is inevitable and unavoidable, and the district might have to make some tough decisions about how to get ahead of that problem. Districtwide, AISD has overall spare capacity at elementary, middle, and high school levels, but that districtwide figure does not reflect the problems of particular schools already crowded but under 125% overcapacity and so not eligible for extra rooms. Some of the stress on individual schools could be alleviated by redistricting and the continued transfer freezes that have affected dozens of campuses.
These are short-term solutions for a city that doubles in population every 20 years. District 7 (Southwest) trustee Robert Schneider, concerned about land acquisition as property prices soar, asked the board, "Where are you going to find 75 acres for a high school, or 15 acres for an elementary, when the next bond rolls around?"
In the end, the board may have its hands tied to a May election. Mandated and regulated issues like the labs need to begin planning this year. Even if trustees considered pushing the bond election back to November, because of the practicalities of the school year and the difficulties of getting more stakeholders involved across the summer, preliminary needs findings would need to be already available in May. The questions still remain: How quickly will AISD have to begin planning for the next bond? To do so well will it need to change the whole process? Says Torres, "We have to get better at reading the tea leaves."