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June or November? Political Calculus of AISD Tax Vote

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Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News
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The Austin school district wants to ask voters for more money. But it’s still trying to determine when to do that. Holding a tax rate vote during the November general election potentially could be less expensive, but one seasoned political consultant suggests it would be “cheap and stupid.”

The main reason for a tax hike is to pay for a salary increase. Staff has not received a raise in two years. Teacher salaries in the Austin Independent School District rank seventh among ten Central Texas districts, and ninth among urban Texas districts.

The district plans to give a one-time three percent raise next year by spending $14.2 million from its fund balance, which is a pile of cash that helps the district maintain high bond ratings.

But making the raise permanent would require that voters approve an increase in property taxes. A four-cent increase in the property tax rate would net the district $15.9 million and cost the average homeowner an extra $89 per year, according to AISD.

The school board will hear a presentation from staff tonight on two potential timelines for a tax rate election. One would see the election held on June 16, at the same time as runoff votes from the city election in May. The second timeline would put the tax rate vote on the general election ballot November 6.

Peck Young, the director of Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, worked as a political consultant for AISD bond elections from the mid-80s until 2004. All of them passed. All of them were standalone elections.

“You can never raise enough money to penetrate the hurricane of media that’s going to be launched during that [November general] election,” Young said. He points to Congressional and presidential elections and also the local votes on a city bond for light rail and geographic representation.

[Update on Tuesday, March 6 at 3:29 p.m. A fact lost in the original reporting of this story was that the Austin ISD successfully passed a tax rate increase of 3.9 cents per $100 of property valuation during the general election in November 2008. Fifty-nine percent supported the measure, and 41 percent opposed it.]

Young’s research has also found that more than half of Texans are straight-ticket voters; they simply vote straight down party lines. “That means unless you can figure out a way to get them to participate, you lose over half your voters,” he said.

“It’s penny wise and pound moronic to put every election on one date and pray to God the voters can sort out the difference,” Young said.

However, Young is not jazzed about June either. He says a June 16 vote would be tough because school is out for summer and many teachers will be out of town, but he says “the downside to November is enormous.”

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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