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Education

AISD Approves Spending Plan, Historic Tax Exemptions

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The Austin school board has unanimously approved a billion dollar spending plan for next school year. The expenditure budget includes a $30 million deficit. That will be paid for with money from AISD’s emergency cash reserve, which it calls the fund balance.

A large portion of that deficit is the result of a one-time, three percent pay raise for staff. The board will officially adopt the full budget in August, after it decides whether to call for an election on raising property taxes.

Meanwhile, the school board last night gave the green light to continue a program that grants tax breaks to some people who own historic properties.

The historic tax abatement program – as it’s officially known – was suspended for a year in 2010, partly because of concerns over the growing number of property owners receiving tax subsidies. The purpose of the program is to give the owners of those homes and businesses an incentive to maintain the original property facades. And Maureen Metteauer with the Heritage Society of Austin told the school board last night that it also creates an educational value for Austin ISD.

“Be assured that we will continue to work with your staff to develop tools and other resources that will help leverage historic assets to the benefit of your students and your teachers,” Metteauer said during a public hearing.

But the school board’s decision was not unanimous. Trustee Vince Torres said he wanted tax exemptions restricted to property owners who help create educational experiences for students in the district.

“I want those members that live in properties like that to actually be recognized and those that don’t to not be recognized,” Torres said from dais. Torres said he couldn’t support the program because there was no way to check if people getting tax breaks were giving kids a chance to learn about historic properties.

The tax breaks add up to about $2 million a year. But because of how the Texas school finance system works, more than three quarters of that money would be sent to the state under the Robin Hood rule. That’s the mechanism that sends revenue from wealthier districts to poorer ones.

Trustee Lori Moya said that $400 thousand might not seem like a lot in the context of a billion dollar budget, but it could pay for a few teachers or buy new books for a library.

“When you’re having to pinch every penny in your budget, it makes a difference,” Moya said. Moya said she only decided to support the program because she thought it would be unfair to take away a tax exemption without more advance notice.

Board member Robert Schneider on the other hand has been opposed to the historic tax exemptions for some time, and warned board members about the uncertainty swirling around the state’s next legislative session in January.

“Given the recent elections, even though they were primary elections, it’s very likely that it’s going to be a worse for public education environment than the last legislative session. And it’s likely that we will have to do more with less next year,” Schneider said.

School board president Mark Williams agreed that was possible. But he said the city of Austin guidelines that AISD uses to qualify historic properties are rigorous, meaning that fewer would be approved. And he pointed to a new provision that says any homeowners who qualify after 2011 will have their tax credits capped at $3,500.

“And I realize while there’s some very, very legitimate properties that are there, there may be a few that I wish were not there. You know it’s not perfect but it’s good,” Williams said. “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

In the end, the board voted to adopt the historic tax abatement program 6 to 2. This year, 435 commercial and residential properties will qualify. You can read about some of those properties in the city’s newHistorical Survey Wiki. Read more about the AISD budget, including a spending breakdown by campus, on the district's budget website. 

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