Meet the AISD Bonds
A thumbnail introduction to the $890 million bond package on the May 11 ballot
The needs are certainly great.
Thanks to a burgeoning student body, aging infrastructure, recession-deferred maintenance – and never forget, persistent underfunding of public education by the state of Texas – the Austin Independent School District's "needs list," accumulated over the past year by the district's Citizens Bond Advisory Committee, reached $1.3 billion. The CBAC, with 30 appointed members from across the district, steadily whittled the list to a still formidable $892,245,000, spread across four propositions: 1) Health, Environment, Equipment, and Technology; 2) Safety and Security, Overcrowding Relief, New Construction; 3) Facility and Infrastructure Renovations; 4) Academic Initiatives, Fine Arts, and Athletics. As those omnibus categories suggest, the package as a whole reflects less individual major projects than a wide range of proposed expenditures on everything from detailed facility repair to proposed new schools. And the major problems facing the district – and Austin voters on May 11 – will be how to explain, then comprehend, that enormous range of projects, and the undeniable size of the entire bond package.
Beyond the sheer cost of the bonds – which the district is already addressing by pointing out that the tax impact (3.5 cents per $100 assessed property value) is relatively low – is the obstacle that there is really not much time to present the information to the voters; for a bond election formally adopted only in late February, early voting runs from April 29 to May 7.
Another factor is the broader context of local taxation. Last November, Travis County voters approved a substantial property tax increase for the Central Texas Health Care District as well as six of the seven city of Austin bond propositions; more major bond proposals are anticipated over the next two years; and AISD itself is expected to propose a tax rollback election (TRE), primarily for teacher and staff pay, probably this fall. Altogether, all those requests for tax hikes meant that if school bonds were to be placed before the voters, spring 2013 was the available window. Asked about the timing, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, who also served on the CBAC, said, "We'd spent over a year developing the proposals in meetings and public hearings, and in the context of other elections and other possible bonds, there really wasn't much choice – it had to be this spring."
School district elections, on a May Saturday yet, are traditionally underattended, which may work for or against passage. The two major groups absolutely essential to school bond support – teacher and staff union Education Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce – not always in agreement on other matters, have both endorsed the bonds, as have a number of Democratic clubs, and others will begin to take an interest this month. Official opinion will likely favor the bonds, although it remains uncertain if the voters will know enough, quickly enough, about the proposals to persuade a majority.
Conditions of Unconditionality
The GACC endorsement, moreover, came with a melodramatic hiccup on April 1, right in the middle of a board of trustees meeting. The Chamber's previously "unconditional" endorsement was interrupted by a temporary (unofficial) retraction, which was then followed by another unconditional (and official) re-endorsement. By election day, that episode may turn out to be no more than a blip – Chamber President Mike Rollins quickly issued a follow-up declaration that the GACC "will continue to place our full support behind the proposal" – but the incident does reflect tension among various district factions over how best to address district priorities.
At the meeting, the specific dispute was over the next "Facilities Master Plan" – AISD's periodic blueprint for how best to use all its facilities – and how soon it would have to be in place. That might sound like an academic disagreement, but the last FMP, in 2011, created a major public backlash when the initial draft recommended closing nine district schools. Accordingly, the board (which includes several new members who owe their elections in part to the FMP aftermath) was walking on eggshells. Board members first voted to rechristen the project as the "Facilities Utilization Plan," but then balked at a Chamber demand that they attach a hard, June 30, 2014 date to the next "FUP" – in response, Chamber Vice President for Education Drew Scheberle unofficially told the board, abruptly during the meeting, that the Chamber would withdraw its support for the bonds.
After some discussion, board members reconvened to amend the resolution, and – although Trustees Lori Moya and Cheryl Bradley both complained about being "strong-armed" – voted to include the hard deadline. A few days later, Board President Vince Torres described the whole episode as minor, and largely a dispute over semantics. ("To tell you the truth," he said, "I wasn't even certain at the time what the argument was about.") He and district Superintendent Meria Carstarphen both insisted that the Chamber fully supports the bonds – "We're all on the same page," she said – and a day later, Scheberle reiterated the Chamber's official position of "unconditional support."
Carstarphen and Torres were even more adamant when asked whether the subtext of the argument was really about eventually "closing schools" deemed to be underenrolled. "You're the first person I've heard use those words," Torres told me. "We always have to be careful to utilize all our resources as efficiently as possible, but nobody has said anything about closing schools."
"Not only is no one talking about closing schools," Carstarphen said. "There is absolutely no real need for us to do that. We're growing, and we continue to grow as a district. If we hold on to our market share [of students], there is no reason for us to close schools." Having been taken through the public wringer on the school-closing issue – and in the process having galvanized a strong, still simmering public response – the AISD administration is in no hurry to rile that hornets' nest once again.
Parsing the Needs List
These background tensions aside, the most difficult aspect of this particular bond proposal – because of the enormous range of projects covering the entire district and the 124 schools it contains – is trying to give an adequate description of the details. Each proposition would underwrite a long list of projects, and, in the interests of "functional equity" – spreading the improvements and repairs across the district – the CBAC was careful to collate and approve projects for every district school.
One way to consider a breakdown is to look at the most expensive subcategories within each proposition.
Proposition 1: $140,566,000 - Health, Environment, Equipment, and Technology
$81,000,000 - Technology districtwide
$20,000,000 - Energy conservation districtwide
$14,310,000 - Transportation districtwide
$9,540,000 - Maintenance, facility, and equipment
$9,325,000 - Classroom/science lab fixtures and equipment
$6,391,000 - Food services campus improvements
At $140.5 million, Prop. 1 ranges from repairing food service facilities to buying new buses (Board President Torres emphasizes that new buses also mean better fuel economy and lower emissions); yet another category is $20 million for districtwide energy conservation. But the largest single item is $81 million for technology upgrades for every school, to be spent over the next five years. Bond supporters say that spending looks daunting but is not fancy – the plan is to bring all schools up to current tech standards.
Proposition 2: $233,950,000 - Safety and Security, Overcrowding Relief, New Schools and New Construction
$92,100,000 - Three new elementary schools based on population growth
$47,450,000 - Additions based on demographics:
$11,250,000 - Murchison Middle School
$7,900,000 - Cook Elementary School
$6,000,000 - Doss Elementary School
$5,700,000 - Perez Elementary School
$5,700,000 - Blazier Elementary School
$5,700,000 - Pillow Elementary School
$5,200,000 - Burnet Middle School
$23,470,000 - Safety and security districtwide
$15,400,000 - Individual campus plan addition requests
$12,780,000 - Functional equity additions
$12,150,000 - Land acquisition
$11,000,000 - Replacement/expansion of gymnasium at Anderson High
$8,000,000 - New south HS feasibility and design
$7,600,000 - Fine arts addition at Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders
$2,500,000 - Multipurpose gym addition at Govalle Elementary
$1,500,000 - Fine arts addition and renovations at Lamar Middle School
Prop. 2, at $234 million including construction and infrastructure, looks more like a conventional bond package. Indeed, it includes $92 million for three new elementary schools for anticipated growth, although the specific locations will be determined by need. Other monies target specific school additions for growth, but also for new facilities like fine arts additions and gymnasiums. Of the latter, Torres noted that not just enrollment but graduation rates are sustained in part by extracurricular opportunities, and the district is determined to keep pace with neighboring districts and private schools.
Proposition 3: $349,165,000 - Academic and Building Infrastructure
$311,222,000 - Facility systemic repairs
$25,461,000 - Individual campus plans
$12,482,000 - Libraries campus improvements
At $349 million, Prop. 3 is described by the district as aimed at "safeguarding investments" in existing district schools, and it includes the largest and most amorphous item: $311 million for "facility systemic repairs." It's virtually impossible to summarize, as the repair and renovation list goes on for pages and includes everything from fixing broken sidewalks to HVAC replacement, from handrails to heat pumps. The GACC's Scheberle describes the entire bond package as a "nuts and bolts" approach – in one school he visited recently, for example, the water fountains were unusable; EA's Zarifis notes that in some classrooms, teachers have to scrounge for enough chairs for all students. Both men noted that although the initial needs list was long, it proved impossible to cut it significantly because these were all basic needs, some deferred too long by other priorities. Prop. 3 also includes some particular campus renovations and library improvements at some schools.
Proposition 4: $168,564,000 - Academic Initiatives, Fine Arts, Athletics
$76,310,000 - Physical education and athletics
$36,000,000 - Career & technical education new programs
$25,697,000 - Fine arts
$20,000,000 - Ridgeview campus (old Anderson High School campus) for the School for Young Men
$10,557,000 - Special education
Prop. 4 totals $168.5 million, including $36 million for career and tech education programs, as well as major renovations for both fine arts ($26 million) and athletics ($76 million). Another $10 million would be earmarked for facility improvements for special education, and $20 million would be designated for renovations of the Ridgeview Campus (old Anderson High School campus), chosen by the board to become the (still controversial) School for Young Men (grades 6-12). Presuming the voters endorse the idea, the latter would follow the example of the Ann Richards School for Young Women. Torres notes that the Chamber of Commerce has pushed for yet more "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, math) programs, but based on parent and student interest, the board has resisted any de-emphasis of fine arts and athletics.
Obviously, that brief breakdown provides only an introductory range of the work the bonds propose, although it's more informative than the bond language voters will see if they rely only on the official ballot. Much more detail is available on the AISD web site (www.austinisd.org/bond), although the whole megillah is virtually overwhelming. If you're interested in the projects on a particular school or the plan for a whole category, the needs lists are available both by school or category.
In its explanatory materials – administrators are careful to distinguish between "education" and "advocacy" – the district has emphasized a couple of financial aspects of the bond package: 1) currently low interest rates and construction costs mean a relatively low property tax impact, at 3.5 cents per $100 valuation or about $70 per year for the median Austin home ($200,000); 2) in the shadow of state recapture law (aka "Robin Hood"), under which AISD is defined as a wealthy district that must return a sizable portion of taxing revenue to the state, 100% of the bond funds stay within the district.
Torres, who served on the CBACs for the previous two bond programs, noted that together those programs raised less money at a greater tax rate – "It cost us 6.5 cents for $862 million for those two bonds." Because of rising property values and the current low interest rates, this bond will raise more funding at much less cost to taxpayers, he said: "And we have a much lower debt-per-student ratio than the other districts in our region. It only makes sense for us to raise as much as we can, to chip away at all these needs, across the district."
AISD Bond Proposal: Basic Facts
Election date: May 11
Early voting: April 29-May 7
Prop. 1: $140,566,000 (Health, Environment, Equipment, and Technology)
Prop. 2: $233,950,000 (Safety & Security, Overcrowding Relief, New Schools, and New Construction)
Prop. 3: $349,165,000 (Academic & Building Infrastructure)
Prop. 4: $168,564,000 (Academic Initiatives, Fine Arts, and Athletics)
Tax Impact (incremental):
1) Maximum 3.5 cents/$100 property valuation by 2016
2) $5.83/month or $70/year on median home ($200,000)
3) Homestead exemption for 65+
4) Bond funding not subject to state recapture, stays in district
Endorsed by: Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Education Austin, Travis County Democratic Party, Central Austin Democrats, Austin Environmental Democrats, South Austin Democrats, Capital Area Asian American Democrats, Austin Young Democrats, and Capital Area Progressive Democrats.
Official Ballot Language
PROPOSITION NO. 1: For Health, Environment, Equipment, and Technology
The issuance of $140,566,000 school building bonds for the construction, acquisition, rehabilitation, renovation, expansion, improvement, and equipment of school buildings in the district, including (I) science programs, (II) technology systems and equipment, (III) promotion of energy conservation and efficiency, (IV) cafeteria and food service facilities, and (V) district maintenance and facilities services, and the purchase of new school buses, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
PROPOSITION NO. 2: For Safety and Security and Relief from Overcrowding
The issuance of $233,950,000 school building bonds for the construction, acquisition, rehabilitation, renovation, expansion, improvement and equipment of school buildings in the district, including (I) three new elementary schools, (II) promotion of safety and security, and (III) expansion, renovation and addition of classrooms, fine arts facilities, and physical education and athletics facilities, and the purchase of the necessary sites for school buildings, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
PROPOSITION NO. 3: For Academic and Building Infrastructure Renovations and Repairs
The issuance of $349,165,000 school building bonds for the construction, acquisition, rehabilitation, renovation, expansion, improvement, and equipment of school buildings in the district, including (I) repair, improve, and replace facility systems throughout the district (including roofing, plumbing, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electric, flooring, and other building systems), (II) rehabilitation, renovation, and improvement of libraries, and (III) traffic safety improvements, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
PROPOSITION NO. 4: For Academic Initiatives, Fine Arts, and Athletics
The issuance of $168,564,000 school building bonds for the construction, acquisition, rehabilitation, renovation, expansion, improvement, and equipment of school buildings in the district, including (I) career and technology education and development, (II) fine arts, (III) physical education and athletics, (IV) special education, and (V) the Ridgeview campus (old Anderson High School campus) for the School for Young Men, and the purchase of new school buses, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
• The AISD website (www.austinisd.org/bond) has the most detailed materials by far.
• The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce (www.austinchamber.com/education-talent/community-education) has endorsed the entire bond package.
• Education Austin (www.austin.tx.aft.org) is the primary AISD employees and teachers union.
• Fix Austin Schools (www.fixaustinschools.com) is a volunteer bond support organization.
• The Travis County Taxpayers Union (www.tctunion.com), the only declared opposition to the school bonds thus far, initially organized last fall to oppose Prop. 1, the Health Care District tax proposition that passed in November.