Why AISD Wants and Needs a $2.4 Billion Bond Program

Equity is not cheap

Travis Early College High School in South Austin, which would get $250 million in modernization from the bond (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The last time Austin ISD asked voters to approve a big bond package – a $1.05 billion package, the largest ever in Central Texas at the time – was in 2017. The public said yes, and that bond program is about 80% complete, and its projects have come in on time and on budget and people are happy with the outcomes. Promise made, promise kept. So AISD can now return to the voters with confidence and ask their assent to a bond package that's more than twice as big – $2.439 billion – and that includes investments in nearly 120 campuses and facilities (which is to say, all of them), plus districtwide stuff like low-emission school buses and new computers and musical instruments and fixing up the AISD sports venues. Even though it's a huge program, the impact on the taxpayer is going to be barely noticeable (a 1-cent increase to the district's debt-service rate). Should be an easy sell, right?

Unfortunately for Central Texas' largest public school system, much has happened since 2017, largely unwelcome. There was a pandemic, and two successive superintendents have come and gone. Austin's absurd housing costs have sent families packing to more affordable suburban districts, leading to about a 10,000-student drop in AISD enrollment since the 2017-18 school year. Despite having the largest property tax roll (see: absurd housing costs) of any of Texas' more than 1,700 public school districts, AISD had to dip into its cash reserves to balance its budget for seven years in a row, largely because AISD's property wealth has translated into an eye-watering amount of its revenue being sent to the state via recapture ("Robin Hood") for redistribution to less flush schools throughout Texas. Labor relations have been tense, and educators have headed for the exits in record numbers. A controversial round of school closures in 2019 drained much of the district's reservoir of trust and goodwill.

If this trajectory continued, it would be sad but not shocking, since this has been the lot of many big-city American school systems. But things are looking up. Enroll­ment has stabilized at around 73,000 students (the official count comes at the end of this month), the budget is now balanced, and AISD remains the primary K-12 provider for a city that's becoming larger, wealthier, more diverse, and more competitive by the second. Many Austin students and families have ultra-high expectations, and the district has continued to meet them as often as not, no matter how much people like to complain. Its best schools are among the best in the nation, and families in million-dollar homes who in most cities would never put their kids in "inner city public schools" continue to enroll theirs in AISD.

The district has lost more students than it would like to charter schools that have aggressively sought to manifest the dreams of rising and striving working-class families, mostly non-Anglo, to transform their kids' lives through education. But Austin ISD is still in a position to compete for those families' enrollment, unlike in other Texas cities where the gains made by charters will never be reversed and often are not even contested. To do that – and also to compete for the education talent needed to make AISD successful, and to be able to pay those people what they deserve – AISD needs to make sense of its physical footprint, a sprawling network of campuses and facilities that are too big or too small or too old or otherwise not fit for its purposes. District leaders are confident that, with this bond program, it's finally arrived at the right way to do that.

Planning, Not Panicking

Twice in the last decade, Austin ISD has provoked enormous community backlash by engaging in "facilities planning" processes that led to beloved schools being placed on the chopping block. The fallout from its efforts in 2011-12 effectively cut short the Austin career of then-Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and led voters to reject two of four AISD bond propositions (which happens much more rarely in Austin than in other Texas districts) in 2013.

The district repaired its reputational damage enough to get the 2017 bond package approved, but then knocked a big hole in its community relations with the 2019 "School Changes" debacle that originally marked 12 campuses for closure and ended up shuttering four elementaries, three on the Eastside. Current AISD leaders are well aware of the need to rebuild trust and convince a confused and disoriented community that despite the whipsawing fortunes of the district, it knows what it's doing and has the public interest in mind.

This time, "we're having these conversations with the community, versus planning for the community," interim Superintendent Anthony Mays told the Chronicle. "We've recognized the facilities need to be developed in a way that's aligned with what the community values. And so we're building schools that fit the needs of the communities we're serving now, at the most appropriate size given the current circumstances, knowing there's always the possibility of growth and change."

The package is divided into three propositions but almost all of the proposed spending, $2.32 billion, is in AISD Proposition A, which funds "projects such as school modernizations, security improvements, and critical facility renovations throughout the district," according to AISD's description. Prop B is a $75.5 million technology package, while Prop C is a $47.4 million program of improvements to the district's major athletic facilities.

The biggest ticket items in Prop A are modernization projects at a couple dozen campuses, described as thorough reconstructions: "We're taking the building down to the foundation in some instances," said AISD Chief Operations Officer Matias Segura, "so for us it truly is a blank canvas" on which to build the school that the campus community wants and needs now. These have price tags of roughly $40 million to $60 million for an elementary school overhaul, or up to $250 million for Travis Early College High School in South Austin; other high schools will see their modernizations implemented in phases, not all funded in this package. See the chart below for how the complete package of investments would be distributed geographically throughout the district; there are also numerous districtwide investments in things like new school buses, a greatly enhanced wireless network, improved climate control and ventilation systems (a need made much more top-of-mind after the COVID-19 experience), and mandated safety and security systems in the wake of increases in campus crime and school shootings that Austin has fortunately not experienced locally.

Each high school's attendance district, and the middle and elementary schools that feed into it, forms a vertical team at AISD; the Travis, Navarro, Northeast, and LBJ districts will receive the largest shares of the proposed $2.4 billion bond program (see "The Bond Ballot Breakdown" below)

When Strategies Converge

The framework for developing this bond package is called Equity by Design: "This approach seeks to understand historical issues and identify root causes in order to more effectively address the challenges facing our district and underserved communities," according to the district's description on the 2022 bond program website (bond.austinschools.org). "It's a different approach, rooted in the fabric of what Austin is," said Segura, distinguishing this year's planning from that for the 2013 ("a Band-Aid approach") and 2017 ("tackling the worst first") programs. "This time, we've looked at all of it: the students that are being served; the communities that these facilities serve; the needs of the organization as a whole."

With a goal of maximizing the package's punch on safety, equity, and efficiency, the Equity by Design process has involved seven long-range planning committees looking holistically at AISD programs and services today and in the future, not just at the facilities as buildings in isolation (a major misstep in the run-up to the 2013 package), and identifying what's needed to meet the community's expectations of the district. Those strategies, along with the district's assessment of the condition and suitability of each of its campuses, were used by the Bond Steering Committee formed in February to develop two draft proposals, which were presented to the community for feedback in July; the AISD Board of Trustees approved the final package on August 11. Mays, Segura, and AISD Chief Financial Officer Eduardo Ramos all agree that this process unlocked what Segura describes as "creative thinking" to identify needs, and solutions to meet them, that wouldn't have been considered in a prior bond package.

While the steering committee's charge will end after the November 8 election, half of its members are the leaders of the seven long-range committees, which are ongoing. "The way we approached the work addressed some of the public's distrust after the school closures," said Mays, who noted that not all of the strategies that emerged are included in this one bond program, as large as it is.

Segura explains that the long-range strategies were intentionally determined independent of how to pay for them and that not all of them translate directly into capital spending in this bond program. "Many things have to be incorporated into our annual budgeting process, or perhaps may only be funded by grants," he says. "The larger comprehensive plan is meant to be holistic, so that when we do invest in a specific location because we have deficiencies, we're also designing and building in a way that addresses strategies tied, for example, to visual and performing arts [one of the seven committees]. You might invest or design it differently. We also talk about resiliency planning; many of our schools function as shelters, or as water and food distribution sites. If you're going to rebuild a school, how might you design it differently to support the community in times of need? And so all of that kind of converged."

A Sense of Real Urgency

Mays is focused on finding other ways for AISD to increase its revenues, a task that he says lies before all public school districts, and one where others have innovated more than AISD has. "We're looking at other ways to squeeze more dollars out of our system. It's not always pleasant and comfortable," such as the decision to eliminate dozens of positions in the AISD central office, to balance the budget and be fiscally ready to take on nearly $2.5 billion in debt. "But we have to do it in order to get the most out of what we have left."

"I think it's important to note that at Austin ISD, we have the lowest tax rate among all school districts around us," added Ramos. "Even with this bond passage," which if it happens will lead to an increase in that portion of AISD's tax rate earmarked for debt service, "we will still have the lowest tax rate in the area."

Segura said that simply to fix everything identified now as a "deficiency" in AISD's facilities network – "things that are broken, or that are about to break" – would cost more than $4 billion, a cost that grows every minute that those fixes aren't made. So going as big as possible now will save money in the long run, not just in the size of future building programs but also the day-to-day operating budget, which includes about $12 million for emergency short-term repairs each year. Added Ramos, "We do know that these repair costs are competing with the operating dollars that we can use toward teacher and staff compensation."

"This bond is structured in this way, and it's the size that it is, because it needs to be impactful," Segura said. "You know, we have significant needs. We need to do something that moves the needle and with escalating costs and constructions we know that was just going to get bigger. So delay at this point would only make things more expensive for us and the organization. So this is a significant step in really trying to stabilize the system. We are seeing between 12% and 14% annual escalation just in the cost of construction. So waiting any longer would only exacerbate the issue and make it harder for us to stabilize. For us, there is a sense of real urgency."

(l-r) Dr. Anthony Mays, Matias Segura, Eduardo Ramos (Photos by John Anderson)

The Bond Ballot Breakdown
Or, How to Spend $2.4 Billion

The Propositions

Here's how AISD describes the way the bond program will appear on your ballot: "By state law, school districts are required to separate certain bond items into separate propositions for voter consideration. On the ballot in November, voters will see three propositions that comprise the 2022 Bond:

• Proposition A: General Purpose: $2,316,025,000

• Proposition B: Technology: $75,541,000

• Proposition C: Stadiums: $47,434,000

If approved by voters, the 2022 Bond would fund capital projects, such as upgrades to safety and security, repairing failing building systems, new facility construction and renovations, technology upgrades and other improvements."

The Biggest Projects

While the bond program includes work on campuses and facilities throughout AISD, its biggest ticket items are campus modernization projects that will rebuild a number of aging AISD properties, some of them in phases (not all included in this bond package). The largest of these are:

Travis ECHS: $252,210,000
Burnet MS: $158,055,000
Northeast ECHS / International HS: $117,856,000
LBJ ECHS: $116,528,000
Sadler Means YWLA: $102,144,000
Crockett ECHS: $66,767,000
McCallum HS: $66,549,000
O. Henry MS: $61,769,000
Navarro ECHS: $61,447,000
Martin MS: $61,446,000

Across the District

Each Austin high school sits atop a vertical team that includes all its feeder schools. Here's how the bond program is distributed around the map:

Akins: $109,091,000
Anderson: $94,554,000
Austin: $141,174,000
Bowie: $68,928,000
Crockett: $137,076,000
Eastside: $228,580,000
LBJ: $277,026,000
McCallum: $108,993,000
Navarro: $369,561,000
Northeast: $313,500,000
Travis: $400,278,000
Noncampus Projects: $158,318,000
Transportation: $25,736,000

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