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Rules lead Demos to strange result on two school bond propositions

Wednesday, August 11, 2004 by

Jeff Jack leading campaign against Propositions 1 and 5

Operating under a new set of organizational bylaws, the South Austin Democrats last night gave their president, Jeff Jack, what he was seeking—an official rejection of two of the six propositions on the Austin Independent School District's September 11 bond ballot. But less than a majority of those casting ballots in last night’s club election chose to reject those bonds, according to bond supporters.

Jack has been making the rounds of various groups where inner-city residents are sympathetic to his call to oppose new construction in the Circle C subdivision—which he says is being done instead of renovating existing school campuses. He is asking voters to oppose Propositions 1 and 5 but support Propositions 2,3,4 and 6. That’s how the vote came out in an instant runoff, after the ballots of those who favored not taking a position on Propositions 1 and 5 were eliminated. The result angered bond supporter Alfred Stanley, who said, “Only a club run by Jeff Jack could come out with a result like that.”

Jack explained that under SAD rules every ballot allows the voter to indicate his first, second and third choice. If no decision is made on the first round, the candidate or position that received the fewest votes—in this case a decision neither supporting nor opposing Propositions 1 and 5—is eliminated. Once those votes were eliminated, he said, a majority was in favor of opposing the two ballot propositions. Jack said the rules had been structured that way to allow people to vote and leave the meeting. In the past, supporters of various candidates have had to choose between voting on a second or third round and going home. So, in essence, a plurality of those voting—but not a majority—voted to oppose Propositions 1 and 5.

Stanley, a political consultant who is working to build support for the bonds, said he is concerned that the vote will allow opponents to say South Austin Democrats opposed Props 1 and 5. “A majority of South Austin Democrats was opposed to taking a position against the bonds but the minority prevailed.

This is South Austin

,” he said.

The six propositions on the ballot total $519 million. The election follows a $369 million bond package in 1996. Next month’s ballot offers six propositions: relief for overcrowded schools; infrastructure improvements to safeguard investments; safety and security, environmental health and district-wide facilities; a new stadium and elementary play slabs; relief for overcrowding and partial funding of a district-wide performing arts center; and the refinancing of contractual obligations to free up money for teacher raises.

Jack sat on a 1996 AISD committee that assessed what was called the "functional equity" of the Austin school district campuses. At the time, it was estimated that the district would need to spend $127 million to bring campuses across the district up to the same facility standards, which Jack called "reasonable."

To date, the district has spent only $25 million to bring schools up to an acceptable standard, which means the school district is still $100 million short, Jack said. He estimates another $40 million is in the 2004 bond package, but that still leaves $60 million on the table in needs to bring existing schools up to new, higher standards.

Inner-city expenditures devoted to functional equity include improvements such as expanded athletic facilities and computer rooms at Dobie Middle School, building a new library at Kealing Middle School, expanding science labs at Lanier High School and building a new Theater Arts Building at LBJ High School.

Jack also has problems with where the district has chosen to spend its money. Under one proposition, the Austin school district decided to purchase land and build schools in the southwest end of the district. Under Proposition 1, the district has committed to build a new elementary and acquire land for a new middle school in the southwest quadrant of the district. Proposition 5 includes $32.4 million for a new southwest quadrant middle school, plus the partial funding for a Performing Arts Center.

The bond issue contains six future elementary schools, Jack said. Four of those sites are already designated. Two are still undesignated with four possible locations being Colony Park, Robert Mueller, Bear Lake on the Hays County line and Oak Hill.

Two, and potentially four, new campuses would be located in the contributing zone or the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. That clearly is unacceptable to the community, Jack said.

"So many schools, including my neighborhood elementary, are getting nothing in this bond issue in regard to functional equity," said Jack, who lives in the Zilker neighborhood. "Not only is this a non-partisan issue, it's a simple issue of where we're spending our tax dollars. Are we going to spend our dollars to reinforce our older neighborhood schools—to encourage people to come in and revitalize the inner city—or are we spending our money on the most affluent parts of town and have it go to build schools over the contributing zone?"

AISD Trustee Rob Schneider, who was on hand for the meeting, lives in Circle C. Schneider said Mills Elementary, just outside Circle C, will open this fall with 900 students, when the school has capacity for around 850. Kiker Elementary, located in Circle C, has literally had more courses in portable buildings than classrooms, Schneider said. Current projects show the school will be 200 percent over capacity in 2007.

"We're literally packed on a small lot of land," Schneider said. "We have a Spanish class at the school that's being taught off a cart. There's literally no space for a classroom. That kind of situation is not a good learning environment for children."

Schneider said many aspects of functional equity are addressed in the maintenance items listed under other bond propositions. While it's not total, Schneider said the district has gone a long way toward trying to equalize the district's campuses.

The functional equity issue is one of three issues being raised during the currently election, Schneider said. Complaints about functional equity, however, are being limited to a fairly narrow segment of inner-city neighborhoods, he said.

The district has also heard concerns about construction in the contributing zone, Schneider said. The difficulty in addressing that concern, however, is that school construction is simply following the home construction already on the ground. And the third, and lesser, concern, being expressed to trustees is where the school district intends to get the matching funds for the Performing Arts Center, which might also be located on the southwest end of the Austin school district.

Retired labor leader Walter Timberlake, a former SAD president, brought up another issue—one that carries a lot of weight with Democrats. He said trustees had not promised to pay the ‘prevailing wage’ for construction workers who build the new schools. For that reason, he said he would oppose all but Proposition 6. Trustee John Fitzpatrick responded that he supports a prevailing wage for those doing school construction but said members of the school board had not been informed of the problem until Monday night. After the meeting, consultant David Butts, who is working for passage of the bond package, said trustees could pass a resolution supporting the labor position at next week’s meeting. He added that the City Council had done the same thing when it became apparent that they needed to act to protect city employees in preparation for passage of the hospital district proposition.

Homeland security keeps Mayor running

Tuesday was a busy day for Austin Mayor Will Wynn. On his way to a meeting with Congressman Lloyd Doggett to announce $9 million in federal funding for hike and bike trails in East Austin, he spotted a plane attempting to land at the old Robert Mueller Airport. He called 911 to notify police, fire and EMS to respond. “It looked like one of the front two wheels was down, so I believed this to be an emergency landing attempt,” Mayor Wynn said. “I saw it barely clear the perimeter fence.”

The plane, en route from Fort Worth to ABIA, had lost power and the pilot recognized the vacant space at Mueller as a possible landing spot. The pilot was not hurt, but the plane did suffer some damage. The Mayor praised the city’s emergency response team. “When I called 911, it was answered immediately,” he said. “The dispatcher was very professional. As a citizen, I was very pleased with how quickly the phone was answered and how professional it was.”

Afterwards, the Mayor met with reporters at City Hall to discuss a possible security threat to several downtown landmarks. In July, police in North Carolina arrested a Pakistani national accused of immigration violations and discovered a videotape of several downtown Austin buildings, along with Mansfield Dam. The Police Chief and City Manager had been notified last week about the suspicious tape, but the Mayor and other elected officials were not briefed until Monday when it became apparent that the information had leaked to the public through another source.

“Federal authorities, when they alerted us locally, did not believe there was a meaningful threat in Austin,” said Wynn. “They asked the City Manager to not disseminate this information. In fact, I believe that there are on-going investigations occurring. I believe when that’s the case, it’s appropriate that information like this not be put out publicly until local authorities help federal authorities identify other potential people who should be questioned.”

The Mayor praised the response by law enforcement agencies to the potential threat as an indication of the smooth relationship between local and federal officials. “The City of Austin has spent a lot of money on homeland security issues. There has been a very well-established partnering with all of the local and regional public safety entities,” he said. “This set of information is evidence that it works. In this particular case, we’re told that there were some people locally that federal agencies wanted to question . . . so for that reason they asked that the information not be disseminated publicly until they identified and contacted those individuals.”

Old hands work on school bond election . . . Seasoned political consultants David Butts, Alfred Stanley and Peck Young are advising the pro-bond group, Committee for Austin’s Children, on next month’s $500 million bond election. They got together last night at Little Mexico restaurant after the South Austin Democrats meeting. Consultant Mike Blizzard—who also attended the meeting—is not working for the district, but has been hired by the Southwest Association of Neighborhoods, a political action committee formed to ensure the passage of bond proposals affecting that part of town. In the past, Blizzard has helped SOS craft a message opposing schools built over the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer. He said the situation has changed and the bonds being proposed would fund schools to serve a population that already lives in Southwest Austin . . . New Texan arrives . . . Mueller Project Manager Greg Weaver and his wife Jessica welcomed Luke Janzen into the family on June 28. Weaver, who works for San Francisco-based Catellus, says Luke is the first native Texan in the family. Luke has an older brother Jack. . . Hot topic . . . Members of the Holly Planning Contact Team will review and revise bylaws including membership criteria, voting rights and election of officers. The group may also talk about efforts to mediate concerns of El Concilio members. They will meet at 6:30pm at the Camacho Youth Activity Center, 34 Robert Martinez Street . . . Correction. . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley called In Fact Daily yesterday to ask that we correct remarks attributed to her in Tuesday’s edition. Dunkerley said the board of managers—not city leaders— would determine the level of reserve needed by the hospital district. She said, “That level should be set based on what the district board evaluates as the risk areas and risk levels for the hospital district in consultation with the city and the county technical staffs.” In Fact Daily regrets the error, which was corrected before noon yesterday . . . Real estate predictions. . . The Real Estate Council of Austin will hear from Jon Hockenyos and Mark Dotzour at today’s luncheon, which will feature their mid-year economic forecast for the local real estate market. The luncheon begins at 11:30am at the Four Seasons Hotel for those who have reservations . . . Other meetings . . . The Environmental Board committee studying measures to mitigate damage by development in the Barton Springs zone will meet at 2pm in room 240 of One Texas Center . . . The Solid Waste Advisory Commission will meet at Waller Creek Plaza at 6:30pm . . . The Art in Public Places Panel is scheduled to meet at 6pm in the 8th floor conference room of One Texas Center.

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