AISD Puts Faith in Voters

Teachers' paychecks – and the tax raise they require – are in voters' hands this November

AISD Puts Faith in Voters
Illustration by Doug Potter

With Nov. 4 looming, the Austin Indepen­dent School District and its allies are scrambling to educate voters about the upside of a rollback tax election that could raise their property tax rate by 3.9 cents for every $100 of appraised value. AISD board of trustees President Mark Williams said, "There's frustration that the school finance system forces our hand but does it in such a way that it's not clear to the public why we're having to do it."

While Travis Co. property values rose 11% last year, the increase does little to benefit the Austin district. As AISD spokesman Andy Welch explained, under recapture – the "Robin Hood" system whereby districts with high property values send a slab of tax revenue to the state – the district "only keeps the proportion that accounts for your growth in student enrollment" and will thus send $173 million to the comptroller in 2009.

So running to stand still, the district must raise the tax rate simply to keep up with inflation. Staff calculates the current $1.04 maintenance-and-operations tax rate will produce $821.1 million in tax revenue next year (an additional 12.3-cent rate goes to pay off bonds and debts). If it passes, the 3.9-cent increase should add $22.3 million, $4.1 million of which goes to the state under recapture; $400,000 goes into the fund balance, a fraction of the $21.8 million the district needs from the account to cover operational costs. The other $13.2 million would cover a 3% staff pay raise, a living wage for substitute staff, continued 100% individual employee health insurance, and increased workers' compensation costs ($4.6 million would cover other operational costs). Of those four expenditures, only the pay raise is tied to the tax vote's successful passage.

AISD Puts Faith in Voters

District staff cannot advocate for or against the raise but can join the discussion. Principals were given a district-drafted letter and fact sheet to distribute to employees and parents at this week's back-to-school nights. Community groups such as AISD UpClose are also expected to play a role. "There's nothing to stop us getting the facts out," said Welch.

While Education Austin President Louis Malfaro called the budget "underwhelming" and worried how soon the board will need to go back to voters for more money, his union is committed to supporting the tax raise. Similarly, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce formally endorsed the increase at its Aug. 28 board meeting. Drew Scheberle, the chamber's senior vice president for education and talent development, said the group's main role would be informing its members of the issues. He added, "Going forward, we want the proposal to be successful and the district to be successful, and we're waiting to see what needs to happen and how we can help."

School boards in Harris and Nueces counties plan similar elections this November, but on the same night that AISD's board of trustees voted for the election, San Antonio ISD's board rejected staff recommendations for a 9-cent tax election. After the failure of a 13-cent election last November, San Antonio teachers will go without a pay raise for two years. Explaining the decision, SAISD spokeswoman Carmen Vázquez-González explained, "They wanted the community to have more information about our financial situation, and they didn't feel that they wanted to ask for an election at this point when the price of food and fuel has gone up."

Malfaro argues San Antonio's experience is not the norm: One hundred and twenty Texas ISDs ran tax elections last November, and the rate rise passed in 90. "San Antonio was a big, notable exception, but there was a lot going on," he said – including an organized opposition. While AISD and the union have received some complaints ("I did get my first piece of hate mail in a while," said Malfaro), no coherent anti-raise group has yet to arise here. With Austin's strong tradition of voting for school bonds, he added, "I do not believe we're in anywhere near the same position."

"The challenge for us," said Malfaro, "is how do you do education in a presidential election year? This is going to be so far down-ballot; that's the tough part." He remains optimistic, even with a softening economy: Education Austin polled on a theoretical rate increase in February and got 70% approval. Plus, he expects an Obama bump. He noted, "Democrats are registering voters like crazy, Travis County voters tend to vote heavily Democratic in presidential years, and Democrats tend to be pro-public schools."

Rather than launch a full-blown election campaign, Malfaro said he is counting on the good sense of Austin voters and getting a simple message to his members. He explained: "This is how it works. You get a pay raise if voters approve this, so you better start talking to your neighbors, your friends, and your colleagues."

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