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Austin ISD is proposing two different bond packages and is inviting the community to weigh in

People in orange safety vests and hard hats stand near a building that is under construction.
Mengwen Cao
/
KUT
Bonds are used to pay for projects that a district's budget doesn't cover, like improvements to school facilities.

The Austin Independent School District has released not one, but two, draft proposals for a 2022 bond. One package totals more than $1.55 billion and does not raise the tax rate. The other proposal is for roughly $2.18 billion and would require a 1 cent tax rate increase. AISD is collecting public input on both plans, but the board of trustees will ultimately decide which one, if either, will end up on the ballot in November.

Austin ISD’s Chief of Operations Matias Segura said the district did not expect to come up with two different options, but projects are more expensive now than they were several years ago.

“Things that we could build for an elementary school in 2017 at $35 million, now it’s going to cost us $55 [million],” he said. “And so I think the Bond Steering Committee, as well as our staff and partners, kind of realized through this effort that all the things that we thought we wanted to get in don’t necessarily fit.”

"It's not just repairing what’s broken, but creating really inspiring and beautiful learning environments for our students."
Ali Ghilarducci, AISD's assistant director of community engagement and external communications

Ali Ghilarducci, the district’s assistant director of community engagement and external communications, echoed Segura. There are so many needs across the district that add up quickly, she said, and the larger proposal makes space for more exciting projects.

“It’s not just repairing what’s broken, but creating really inspiring and beautiful learning environments for our students,” she said.

Ed Ramos, Austin ISD’s chief financial officer, said another factor was at play in the decision to provide two proposals. State law requires the ballot language for the bond to say "this is a tax increase" even if it does not raise taxes.

"The committee, their thinking was: Well, let’s go ahead if we have to put that legally on the ballot, let’s own it and say this is a tax increase — let’s increase it by 1 cent — and that will allow us to do more projects in the long run for the district,” he said.

Ramos said the 1 cent hike would translate to about $65 per year for owners of a home valued at $650,000.

Even though the $2.18 billion proposal includes a 1 cent increase, he said, Austin ISD’s overall tax rate is expected to drop. The district’s tax rate is composed of two areas: maintenance and operations and debt service.

“So even though the $2.18 billion bond package would increase our debt service tax rate by 1 penny, the total overall tax rate we are still estimating to reduce that by 5 and a half cents,” he said.

What is a school bond? 

A bond is a tool that school districts use to pay for capital expenditures that they otherwise could not afford. To sell bonds to get money for these projects, the district needs voter approval. The types of projects that are often funded through bond programs include building and improving school facilities, buying new technology, paying for instruments, getting new buses, and upgrading safety and security equipment.

Without funding from bonds, Segura said, many of these projects would be impossible.

“We don’t have the ability to even consider projects of this size and at the same time we can’t allow any student to not be safe, warm, and cool and dry,” he said.

Segura said in lieu of these large improvement projects, the district has to put on temporary Band-aids that cost millions of dollars each year.

“Just last year alone we spent $1.7 million on rental equipment, like HVAC rental equipment, to keep these schools going,” Segura said. “And when you think about that, that’s the salary and benefits for 25 teachers.”

School bonds cannot be used to pay for staff salaries, utilities, paper, art supplies or even certain types of vehicles.

The Austin ISD board of trustees must decide by late August whether to send a bond package to voters in November. If voters OK the projects, the district can sell bonds to pay for them.

What's in the proposals?

Segura said one of the biggest differences between the two proposals is the number of campuses that could be modernized. Under the $1.55 billion package, eight campuses would be fully modernized and six would be partially modernized. Under the $2.18 bond proposal, 13 campuses would be fully modernized and eight would be partially.

The schools that would be fully modernized under both plans are: Allison Elementary School, Barrington Elementary School, Harris Elementary School, Linder Elementary School, Oak Springs Elementary School, Pecan Springs Elementary School, Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Travis Early College High School.

The two draft bonds include more than $25 million for buses, $30 million for HVAC and $5 million for musical instruments. Both proposals would also ensure each campus has a secure vestibule which makes it harder for a person to gain access to the rest of a school building.

The larger package also includes affordable housing for teachers: $50 million would be set aside for that effort.

“The affordability crisis in Austin impacts all of us but our teachers, specifically, are impacted,” Segura said. “And, for us, making sure that we can attract and retain teachers, it’s absolutely critical for our ability to educate students.”

Austin ISD’s last bond 

Austin ISD’s last bond — which totaled more than $1.05 billion — was passed in 2017. Seventy-two percent of voters signed off on the package. It was, at that point, the largest bond in the district’s history. About 88% of the projects are complete.

Segura said the 2017 bond program was focused on improving facilities in the worst condition. This time, he said, the district approached the bond process with an equity framework.

“Our assumption is not that we know the solution,” Segura said. “We needed to really understand from our community and their lived experience what they need, not what we think they need.”

Ghilarducci noted that the planning process for the 2022 bond also took into account that after voters had approved the 2017 bond, Austin ISD closed campuses, frustrating some families.

"There is perception among some in the community that with 2017, folks gave it their support and then were surprised by the turnaround and closing schools," she said.

She said when the district started this most recent process it "let the community know that this is really about making investments in our schools."

Community feedback 

The next virtual information session is Thursday. The district is also holding two in-person meetings Saturday at Dobie Middle School and Travis Early College High School. Child care will be provided during both of those sessions. Spanish interpretation is offered at the meetings.

Austin ISD held the first of four information sessions about the draft bond proposals on Tuesday night. About 200 people attended the virtual meeting.

A concern participants repeatedly raised was whether enough was being invested in school safety measures. One Austin ISD teacher, Elisabeth Wilburn, said she was worried about classroom windows that face hallways. Wilburn said she has wanted blinds to cover the windows but has had to use paper instead. If the district is putting money toward secure vestibules, she said they could also look at other security measures.

“Another thing that I saw somebody else mention was doors that lock from the inside,” she said. “I have a door that I can open and lock from the outside with a key. So just some things districtwide that would really go a long way toward security.”

Michael Mann, the executive director for construction management with Austin ISD, said the district strives to have blinds and curtains in windows but that some have fallen into disrepair and need to be replaced. He said while it’s not currently a line item in the bond, he was taking note of the feedback.

Mann also said AISD is considering re-keying the entire district, which would cost about $12 million.

“Right now, it is not a line item [in the bond proposals], but it’s strongly being considered,” he said.

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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