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'I’m pretty speechless': Austin ISD school board unanimously approves equity-focused bond

Austin ISD interim Superintendent Anthony Mays (left) and Austin ISD school board members Arati Singh, Ofelia Zapata and Noelita Lugo discuss the 2022 bond during a meeting Thursday night.
Renee Dominguez
/
KUT
Austin ISD interim Superintendent Anthony Mays (left) and Austin ISD school board members Arati Singh, Ofelia Zapata and Noelita Lugo discuss the 2022 bond during a meeting Thursday night.

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The Austin ISD Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Thursday to put a $2.44 billion bond on the November ballot. It is the largest bond package in AISD history, but district officials and school board members say what makes the bond significant is its investment in historically underserved schools and communities.

“I’ve been in Austin all my life. I have never seen AISD bring forward such an equity-focused bond," said Trustee LaTisha Anderson, who represents District 1. "I never thought I would see that. I’m pretty speechless.”

The bond will require a $0.01 increase to the debt service tax rate, even though the district's overall tax rate will drop. If voters approve the bond program later this fall, the district will be able to renovate schools, address critical infrastructure needs and invest in security upgrades.

Just two days earlier at a board work session, Anderson and a couple of other trustees raised concerns about the direction the bond was heading in.

The initial bond proposals were put together by the community-led bond steering committee. That group used an “Equity by Design” process that centers historically underserved communities to develop a draft bond for $1.75 billion and another for $2.25 billion.

On Monday, the Austin ISD administration released its recommendations for the bond, urging trustees to approve the larger package. The administration’s plan mirrored nearly 90% of the steering committee’s, but there were several notable changes.

The steering committee had wanted to spend at least $115 million at both Northeast Early College High School and LBJ Early College High School to help modernize those campuses, which overwhelmingly serve Black and Hispanic students in District 1. But the Austin ISD administration had suggested reducing the funding for each project to $60 million. The administration also departed from the steering committee’s proposal by seeking to increase funding for projects at several campuses such as Bear Creek Elementary and Austin High, where more than 50% of the student population is white.

That was a problem for Trustee Kevin Foster, who represents District 3. He said at Tuesday’s meeting he disagreed with the administration’s recommendations.

"What I am literally seeing is money shifting from Black and Brown to white in this next proposal," Foster said. "I am strongly in favor of the work the bond steering committee did as is."

But on Thursday night, the district brought forward a new bond proposal worth roughly $2.44 billion. Austin ISD officials found a way to increase the bond capacity by $189 million while still keeping the increase to the debt service tax rate to a penny. The plan restored the levels of funding for projects at LBJ and Northeast high schools that the bond steering committee recommended, while also providing more resources to Bear Creek and Austin High, among other campuses.

Foster said the administration’s final proposal honored the hard work of the bond steering committee and does not take from one community to give to another.

“The recommendation presented to us … powerfully benefits the entire Austin community. All of our students deserve the best that we can do,” he said. “The bulk of funds in this package go to schools in historically underserved communities, overwhelmingly.”

Members of the bond steering committee who attended the board meeting said they were elated with the result. April Clark said the committee had been fighting for equity and now they’re seeing it in this bond program.

“We’re going to get money to the communities that have been passed over time and time again,” she said.

Clark also pointed out that improving facilities with bond dollars also takes pressure off Austin ISD’s annual budget because not as much money needs to go toward utilities or infrastructure repairs. She said that frees up money in the district’s budget to increase pay for teachers, which ultimately benefits students. Bond steering committee co-Chair Barbara Spears-Corbett echoed that sentiment.

“This bond is going to have a large, large impact on …education here in Austin and for our students,” she said.

Austin ISD Interim Superintendent Anthony Mays said the bond will improve students’ experience at school.

“I’m excited about the pride that comes with our students running on new fields, playing in new gyms, walking into new classrooms, feeling air-conditioning," he said. "I think all of that brings about a sense of excitement for — not just me as the interim superintendent — but also for our students and our community."

If voters approve the bond package in November, the district could fully or partially modernize more than two dozen campuses, upgrade athletic facilities and fields, buy new school buses as well as musical instruments, and invest more than $35 million in technological devices for students. And while most campuses are not slated for full renovations, virtually all stand to benefit from the bond because of the focus on districtwide infrastructure improvements, said AISD’s Chief of Operations Matias Segura.

“We’re addressing high priority, life-saving security deficiencies," he said. "That was the number one priority when it came to deficiencies. Right behind that was HVAC deficiencies."

The final bond package does not include funding to build teacher housing after community feedback for the proposal was mixed. But district officials say they are working on other ways to address affordability concerns.

AISD trustees said they were optimistic voters will approve the bond in November, even if their immediate communities are slated to see fewer bond dollars. District 7 Trustee and School Board Vice President Yasmin Wagner said it is important to think of AISD as a larger community.

“When our entire district wins, every child in this district wins,” she said. “It’s important that we help those among us who have not been served in the way that they should have for decades in this district. So, I hope that our community will rally together.”

At-Large Trustee Noelita Lugo said she thinks many Austinites who’ll show up to the polls in November believe in investing in public education. Lugo added that she hopes advocacy for public education funding will also spill over into the 2023 legislative session because the state underfunds public education.

“School districts wouldn’t be put in this position where we have to ask, ‘Can we please use bond dollars to fix our broken facilities, our unmaintained facilities?' Because the only way we can actually compensate our staff and teachers is if we do this bond," she said.

The last Austin ISD bond passed in 2017 with 72% of the vote. At the time, it was the largest bond in district history at just over a billion dollars.

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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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