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School board wary of tax rate increase in bond election

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Read their lips: no tax increase. With the exception of District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon, the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees was united in its stance against raising the tax rate with the 2017 Bond Package as it voted to adopt the proposed list of projects Monday night.

Before staff made its presentation, Superintendent Paul Cruz emphasized that this bond was for the first phase of the Facility Master Plan update (adopted in April) and could not immediately address all the needs of the school district. He reiterated the administration’s “worst first” prioritization policy. “When we looked at the amount of our needs, we had to actually tighten up that language and say it’s really about ‘worst-er first-er,’” he said.

Cruz introduced the package with another motto: “21st Century Learning Spaces Without a Tax Rate Increase.” He explained that the majority of the roughly $1.1 billion package would be funded mostly through bond dollars, a total currently at $990 million, as well as $44 billion in contingency funds from the 2013 bond and $40 million in estimated land sales.

Board President Kendall Pace said that the collaboration between staff, the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee and the community had been “fully vetted,” although she did make an apology to some communities like Eastside Memorial High School. Members from that community had testified during public comment about feeling left out of the decision to move the school to make room for the relocation of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy.

Gordon said that he has felt like Don Quixote charging the windmills as he has struggled against his fellow trustees on the LASA issue. He pointed out that the decision to move LASA had happened prior to the formation of the facilities and bond committee and that its relocation, if the current plan goes through, would result in three high schools in District 1 that are all predominantly black, brown and poor: LBJ, East Memorial and Reagan.

“This board has stated that desegregation is one of its principles. I don’t see it,” he said.

Gordon then proposed to amend the motion to approve the list by adding the modernization projects for Blazier and Cowan elementary schools and to initiate the construction of a new middle school in Mueller. Consultants with AECOM estimated that those additions would raise the bond total beyond $1.1 billion.

Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson said that she would need more time to confirm whether or not that amount would impact the tax rate.

Trustees Yasmin Wagner, Julie Cowan and Cindy Anderson all expressed uneasiness about going over $1 billion with the bond amount for fear of a tax rate increase. Pace referenced some poll numbers (she did not specify which one) where over 70 percent of respondents said that they would prefer a bond that would not change the tax rate.

Gordon’s amendment failed 1-8, with the only affirmative vote being his own.

As an alternative, Gordon made a motion to add the same projects he had already suggested, but this time splitting the package into two propositions: one with the additional projects and the bulk of the original, and the other with LASA’s relocation and the associated projects. In that scenario, consultants said that the bigger prop would amount to just over $1 billion and the smaller prop would be $106 million. That motion also failed.

All other amendment proposals failed, with the exception of a proposal by Trustee Ann Teich to initiate the development of the middle school in Mueller if it was possible to do so and keep the bond dollar amount under $1 billion. That motion passed 4-1-4, but afterward trustees grew concerned about the implications of the amendment, which could possibly affect other projects in the package. After a failed effort to change Teich’s amendment, the board voted to rescind it.

Nevertheless, Cruz said that he would look into the possibility of including the Mueller project in the bond package and that he would report back at the next meeting.

Finally, after midnight, the board voted 8-1 to adopt the 40-item list of projects, with Gordon dissenting.

The board is expected to officially call the order for the bond election at next week’s meeting. There will be another opportunity to propose amendments, but unless those amendments involve costs less than $10 million, it’s unlikely the board will think they’re worth the risk.

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