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AISD board calls for budget to be more voter-friendly

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

A budget can be financially sound and make economic sense, but if it doesn’t make sense to the public, it’s worthless. That’s the point that some Austin Independent School District board trustees tried to drive home to district administration and consultants Monday night.

There is plenty of cause for concern. The last school district bond election, in 2013, was the first time an AISD proposition had failed since 1989. In fact, two out of four props failed, one for academic and building infrastructure renovations and another for academic initiatives, fine arts and athletics. The resulting budget was $490 million, nearly half the original proposed budget of $890 million.

Since the AISD Board of Trustees adopted the Facility Master Plan Update in April, the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee has been meeting to develop a bond proposal for the November 2017 election.

As the meeting started, Trustee Julie Cowan reassured the audience, both in attendance and watching online, that the bond was still a work in progress. “While we always welcome your thoughts on specific issues, don’t judge the bond yet,” she said.

According to the Facility Master Plan Update, the district has approximately $3.5 billion in needs over the next six years. Matias Segura, senior project manager with third-party consultant AECOM, said that the list of projects currently on the table, amounting to $1.5 billion, considered which items from the update could be realistically achieved.

“When we look at project costs and construction, we have to be mindful of when construction will occur and what changes in the market might have an impact on cost,” Segura said.

AISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson said that a combination of conservative budgeting and good credit rating meant that the district should have a $1 billion bonding capacity without having to change the tax rate. As far the $1.5 billion proposed project list, she said that conservative estimates projected it would increase the tax rate by only 2.75 pennies.

“History would indicate that we probably won’t have to increase the tax rate, but that would be the maximum that we’re projecting at this time,” Johnson said.

Even in the shadow of the 2013 failures, Trustee Amber Elenz encouraged everyone to dream big for this bond. “This is not a bond that is just supposed to just meet our needs, this is a bond that is supposed to move us forward,” she said.

In reference to the structure of the facilities plan update, where certain projects were prioritized to be initiated in the next six years according to a worst-first philosophy, Elenz said that this agenda should not throw regional equity among schools even more out of whack than it already is. “There are other pieces of passing a bond that we have to consider,” she said. “We have set on a marathon plan; we cannot go out as if it’s a sprint. We have got to keep our voters from being fatigued.”

Trustee Cindy Anderson agreed. “I want to make sure from bond to bond, not just in the context of this bond, that we have some equity, still keeping in mind what our most critical needs are,” she said, “but we need to make sure that there’s something in (the 2017 bond) for those districts that have not seen much.”

After considering the board’s feedback, the district administration will return with an official bond proposal on June 12, and a board action calling for an election could happen as early as June 19.

Photo by Ervins Strauhmanis made available through a Creative Commons license.

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