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Tax election looking less likely for Austin school district

Tuesday, June 5, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin Independent School District, which is struggling with an estimated $30 million budget gap in the upcoming year, had been expected to decide whether to ask voters for a hefty tax increase at its last meeting in May. But board president Mark Williams told trustees they would wait until August.


“We don’t want to overwhelm voters with tax and bond items,” Williams told colleges at a board meeting on May 21. “What’s the tolerance?”


Under state law, school districts must call for voter approval when a proposed tax rate exceeds its determined effective rate. AISD still has an additional 9 cents it can add to its tax rate before hitting the state cap. At the last board meeting, Williams said the district must be clear about how much is being sought and how it would be divided among requests.


The board also presented staff with a series of questions to answer before calling for a vote. What were other jurisdictions doing with their tax rates? What would be on the ballot for the city’s potential bond election? What was the timing for the urban rail or medical school bonds?


The urban rail picture became a little clearer on Friday when Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that, at least for him, going to voters for bonds to support a rail line was out of the question for November, especially in light of the impending vote on increased rates for Austin Energy. In his blog, Leffingwell wrote he would support a bond package of about $400 million, a size that would not require a tax increase. That would appear to take one significant issue off the table for Austin ISD.


Trustee Robert Schneider, who supports delaying a tax ratification election, or TRE, predicted the board will put off the potential tax rate increase and choose a “13th check” for the budget, which is shorthand for an additional one-time payment to district employees, pulled from the school district’s reserve funds. This would provide employees a bump in salary, though Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has expressed reservations about a pay raise without an identified source of ongoing funds in the coming years such as would come from a tax increase.


Austin ISD went into the current budget discussion with a $30 million shortfall. Schneider estimates that a 3 percent pay raise would cost another $15 million on top of that $30 million deficit.


“My sense is that we’re going to go with the 13th check this year and look at the TRE in the coming years after that,” Schneider said. “My big point has always been that we need to wait and see what the Legislature is going to do. There are some board members who want to do the TRE as soon as possible, but I think there will be a lot more discussion before we do that.”


“It still provides, in effect, a 3 percent bump in pay rather than a long-term pay increase,” Schneider said. “We need to consider what happens in the Lege and what’s on the ballot. There’s a whole gamut of things that need to get examined before we do something like this.”


The question of whether to push or delay a tax ratification election issue, often called a “rollback election,” will be back on the board’s agenda in June, Schneider said.


Like many in the political arena, Schneider is looking with some trepidation to a presidential year ballot. At this point, a one-time fix rather than a long-term obligation, makes more sense to Schneider.


What may be on the ballot this November regarding the medical school or teaching hospital also remains a question mark. Central Health, a taxing authority that oversees health care programs for low-income Travis County residents, would make the proposal, but Sen. Kirk Watson’s office, which has pushed for the community’s commitment to a medical school, was oblique about a proposal.


Watson, in his own statement on Friday about Leffingwell’s decision, said that the medical school was not contingent upon any other efforts or projects.


“I commend Mayor Leffingwell’s leadership in standing up for a deliberate, disciplined process and requiring that voters get the basic information they’ll need about any rail proposal before they vote on it,” Watson said in his statement. ”That doesn’t change our responsibility to stay true to our own process with regard to how we can increase this community’s access to modern health care.”

Watson agreed the medical school and teaching hospital would be a community effort, one reinforced by recent commitments by the University of Texas System, Seton Healthcare Family and Central Health, which owns University Medical Center Brackenridge.


“It’s clear that the community will play a role in building a medical school and fulfilling the 10-in-10 goals,” Watson said, referring to a 10-point Travis County health care plan that includes opening a new teaching hospital, creating a comprehensive cancer treatment center and expanding mental health services in 10 years. “But it’s still unclear what that role would be or how it would look and function. And it remains inappropriate to rush toward a particular result, especially as we continue to transparently work on answering the questions that the people of Austin share about this complex, critically important effort.”

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