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Debate Over Eanes ISD Bond Package Gets Heated

KUT News
Former Eanes School Board Presidents, Al Cowan and Clint Sayers, pictured here at a 2014 vote.

A press conference criticizing the $52 million bond packageproposed by the Eanes Independent School District grew heated Tuesday after some Eanes school board members showed up, challenged the critics to a debate and accused them of spreading false information. 

Two former Eanes School Board Presidents, Al Cowan and Clint Sayers, organized the press conference. They run a group called Citizens for Academic Excellence in Eanes (CAEE). They say the bond package is borrowing money for unnecessary and "luxury" items and will only increase Eanes' budget problems. The school district is expecting a $5.4 million dollar budget gap next year. 

"The bond includes unnecessary luxury items and new facilities that make our deficit problem worse," Cowan said. "Any future bond should be based on basic needs, not luxuries and buildings."

After wrapping up initial remarks, current school board members jumped in. "Give these folks and example of two or three luxury items, that you called, that are in the bond," challenged board member Rob Hargett. "Give us a couple of examples."

Cowan asked why the district needs to borrow $250,000 for a new public address system for the football stadium.

"Do you know that PA system is dying?" Hargett retorted. "That is has five speakers and one of them works?" 

Eanes ISD Superintendent Tom Leonard says the package would allow the district to replace everythingfrom computers, phones and the iPads each Eanes ISD student receives to buses, school roofs and air conditioning systems. There’s also money for new technologies like 3D printers and extra money for fine arts programs.

One line item includes $1 million to replace eight school buses over the next one to three years. Eanes district officials say they replace buses when they reach 120,000 miles or ten years. Cowan wonders why the district can't hold off and replace the buses when they get to 130,000 miles. 

Another line item includes nearly $600,000 for new uniforms and musical instruments for high school students. The proposed package would not increase Eanes ISD voters' current property tax rate. 

The impromptu debate carried on for more than 15 minutes until a reporter jumped in.

“Gentlemen, it seems like it’s morphing into a whole debate right now," she said.

"Well, Mr. Hargett wanted a debate but I guess he decided today," Cowan said.

"And I’m looking forward to it," Hargett snapped.

Leonard says Eanes ISD is hit hard by the state's current school finance system. The district sends about 55 percent of its property taxes back to the state every year under "recapture," which he says is a main reason for the district's growing budget problems. The district wants to use bond money for these projects, instead of maintenance and operations money, because the state can't touch bond money.

“This is one way that the board feels we can meet some of the basic needs that we have for the district and not put some stress on our maintenance and operations budget," says Leonard. 

While Leonard says everything is on the table as the district negotiates next year's budget, a recent memo proposes eliminating various teacher and teacher aide positions district-wide. Cowan and Sayers, the former school board presidents, say district leaders are protecting bureaucracy and balancing the budget on the backs of teachers. 

Cowan and Sayers also argued that enrollment is not increasing enough to warrant the types of repairs and additions the district says is necessary. This year, enrollment did not increase in Eanes ISD, but according to conservative estimates based on a district demographic report, the student population is expected to increase by around 6,000 students by 2019.

This isn't the first time Cowan and Sayers have voiced their opposition to Eanes ISD bond packages. Last year, they opposed a $89.5 million bond package, too. That proposal ultimately failed, which is why Eanes ISD is coming back to voters this year. 

EanesISD voters will cast their ballots on the bonds May 9.

Faith Ann Ruszkowski contributed to this report.

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