‘Astounding’ Texas school bond and tax elections fuel spending

Nov 16, 2016 by

By Kenric Ward –

School bond and tax elections enjoy “astounding success” across Texas, even as school debt and property tax bills continue to soar.

This year, 94 percent of proposed K-12 bond value won voter approval – adding $2,719,875,577 in public debt. Of 25 school bond referendums on the ballot, just six failed, according to TexasISD.com.

A $669 million bond floated by El Paso Independent School District was the largest in that county’s history.

Forty-nine districts sought tax increases, with most seeking the state-set maximum of $1.17 per $100 of valuation. Just nine tax proposals lost.

“This is an astounding success rate, and doesn’t coincide with the dialogue from our state leaders,” said Joe Smith, president of the private, nonpartisan TexasISD.com.

San Antonio Independent School District won easy voter approval of both a $450 million bond and a maximum tax increase – even as enrollment has declined.

“People have bought the lie that more money and more elaborate facilities are necessary for better learning. They believe that a good citizen will always support more money for schools,” said Jeanne Melendez, a retired educator in San Antonio.

Tal Campbell, a conservative activist in suburban Alamo Ranch, said, “Voters basically like their public schools and are convinced by school interests and other parents that they need to ‘pay a little more’ to keep the quality up.”

“Without organized and well-publicized opposition to the ongoing higher taxes and their effects, people continue to vote property taxpayers toward eventual bankruptcy,” he said.

The SAISD vote was instructive. Like El Paso, the San Antonio district’s student population has fallen [4.9 percent since 2005], but voters approved more indebtedness anyway. In a separate proposition, SAISD voters also agreed to raise property taxes. Both measures passed with more than 70 percent of the vote.

Not counting the yet-to-be-determined interest charges, the cost of the SAISD bond works out to $8,380 per student. The $450 million bond pushes the district’s cumulative debt past $1.1 billion.

SAISD’s scholastic performance has been mediocre at best. Just three of its 90 campuses currently meet all academic standards, as measured by the Texas Education Agency.

By contrast, 27 significantly smaller Texas districts each had more schools achieving the benchmark. Eight of those districts are in the Rio Grande Valley, home of some of the poorest schools in the state.

Twenty IDEA charter schools met the standards, with six of the independently operated IDEA campuses in San Antonio. Under state funding rules, charters — which are barred from floating public bonds — receive far less capital support than their SAISD counterparts.

Smith said urban districts seem to pass bonds more easily. “Lower-wealth districts have a significant disadvantage because lower wealth makes the taxes higher,” he noted.

Peggy Venable, a Houston-based education watchdog, said school district debt across Texas totaled $117 billion before the Nov. 8 election.

“Voters often complain about property taxes but approve bond initiatives without considering the impact on their tax bills,” she said.

Of the bonds that passed this year, “taxpayers will be paying an additional half of that in interest,” Venable estimated. That’s $1.3 billion more in debt payments, and they could be much more as interest rates march upward.

“This is a debt burden we will be leaving today’s students, and many of them leave school ill-prepared for college or work.”

Randan Steinhauser, Austin-based adviser to EdChoice, said, “As we see an increase in local tax dollars going toward education, let’s hope these funds will be used to support classroom instruction that directly relates to improving academic outcomes — not simply toward increasing bureaucracy and building more stadiums.”

Source: ‘Astounding’ Texas school bond and tax elections fuel spending – Watchdog.org

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