AISD: Tax Relief vs. Teacher Relief

AISD board hears testimony on historic property tax exemptions

The Austin Independent School District is facing a budget that could wreck classroom quality and employment levels for years to come. Yet, if citizens' communication at the last board meeting is any gauge, the real budget concern for Austinites is historic property tax exemptions.

At their April 25 board meeting, trustees set aside an hour of extra time for residents to give their input on the 2011-12 school budget. The House and Senate are still considering major cuts to spending as well as funding formulas that could strip potentially tens of millions of dollars more out of the district budget. Last September, the board voted to suspend the tax break for historic properties – 50% for residential and 25% for commercial – to help fill the district's financial hole. And more than half of the 20 speakers at Monday's meeting were there to ask the board to restore the exemption, arguing that the protection of older buildings is more culturally and economically significant than any potential revenue for the district.

The board of trustees is already reviewing last year's decision and has asked staff to study possible reforms, including the impact of using state rather than local historical designations. No date has been set for a decision on whether to bring the exemption back into effect, but both Charles Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, and August Harris, second vice president of the Heritage Society of Austin, specifically requested that the board wait for the Historic Landmark Commission to make its recommendations to council regarding the city's exemption policy on April 28 before making any decisions.

Repeated through the night was a refrain that the exemption only costs the district $100,000 extra for teaching. In fact, that number is a bit misleading. Due to the complexities of the state public education system, it's true that the district would only keep a fraction of the $1.8 million extra it would collect. But altogether, AISD would net about $373,000. About $278,000 of that would go to bond repayment, leaving about $95,000 for maintenance and operations spending; money for teaching would be a portion of that.

That fiscal argument did not impress former AISD reading specialist Debbie Hamerly, who asked trustees to take more local responsibility for district finances and call a tax ratification election on June 18. As for the historic exemptions, she told the board that she had looked through the core principles in the district's strategic plan, "and nowhere is found the phrase 'tax relief.'"

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AISD, historic property tax exemptions, Downtown Austin Alliance, Historic Landmark Commission, Debbie Hamerly, AISD budget

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