Austin ISD has a big bond on the ballot. Here’s how it would impact schools if voters approve it.
When voters in the Austin area head to the polls this election season, one of the items they’ll see on the ballot is Austin ISD’s 2022 bond. The district can use bond money for capital projects, such as building new schools, investing in technology and renovating athletic facilities.
The package is the largest in district history at $2.44 billion. The 2022 bond will appear on the ballot as three separate propositions, as required by Texas law. They are:
- Proposition A: $2.3 billion in general purpose funds
- Proposition B: $75.5 million for technology
- Proposition C: $47.4 million for stadiums
The list of projects for the 2022 bond program were largely developed by the bond steering committee. This group of community members — for the first time ever — used a process that centers historically underserved communities. The Austin ISD Board of Trustees unanimously approved the package in August.
The last time the Austin ISD Board of Trustees put a school bond on the ballot was in 2017. That package totaled just over a billion dollars. About 72% of Austin voters approved it. About 90% of the projects that were a part of that bond program are now complete.
Why do districts rely on school bonds?
Simply put: Austin ISD does not have enough money in its annual budget to pay for all of the projects it’s proposing and the repairs that need to be made to aging buildings. And, maintaining old facilities and campuses is expensive.
“What we don’t want to do is to spend money on aging facilities, and unfortunately that’s what’s happening now,” AISD Chief of Operations Matias Segura said.
He said the district would rather use that money for teacher salaries. For example, last year, the district spent $1.7 million on HVAC rental equipment. That would be enough money to cover the salaries and benefits of about two dozen teachers.
“So by reducing those annual expenditures, we’ll be able to free up those dollars so they can be used for programming and salaries,” he said.
It’s important to note that while bond money can be used to renovate facilities or replace technology, it can’t be used for teacher salaries or programming.
How does a bond work?
If voters approve all three propositions included in Austin ISD’s bond package, the district does not get $2.44 billion overnight. First, the AISD Board of Trustees would authorize the superintendent and chief financial officer to develop a spending plan for the projects — basically how much money is needed in the first 18 months, 24 months and so on. Then the CFO and AISD’s financial advisors will go to the markets and issue bonds to generate cash to pay for the projects voters approved.
How many schools will benefit from the bond?
Every single school in the district is impacted by the 2022 bond. Many schools would get funding to fix HVAC systems, repair roofs and improve plumbing. Each campus that needs a secure entry vestibule will get one (though parents throughout the district have raised concerns that that may still not be enough since buildings can have many points of entry). Bond dollars would also be used to buy new musical instruments, technological devices and school buses for the entire district. Twenty-five campuses are slated to get a phased or full modernization, which means building a new school or significant renovations.
One of the campuses set to get a phased modernization is LBJ Early College High School. The bond package sets aside about $116 million for the project at LBJ. Principal Joseph Welch said the funding would make a significant impact on his campus, which opened in 1974.
“It brings equity to LBJ High School and the East Side of Austin,” he said. “Using that $116 million will go a long way in modernizing our campus.”
Principal Welch added the funding is an investment in the students and the surrounding area.
“LBJ is a focal point of this community. It’s a pillar of this community. So I think it will be giving them back something that they’ve earned and they’ve worked hard to get,” he said.
In total, 11 schools would get phased modernizations if voters approve the bond. Those campuses include Navarro Early College High School, Martin Middle School, Anderson High School and McCallum High School.
A closer look at full modernizations: Travis Early College High School
Austin ISD’s bond package includes funding to completely modernize 14 campuses. This normally means tearing down the school and building a new one. One campus that would get a full modernization if the bond passes is Travis Early College High School in South Austin. Nearly 84% of the student body is considered economically disadvantaged.
Building a new campus, which would cost about $251 million, would include revamping the school’s athletic facilities. This would be a welcome change for Joe Frank Martinez, the school's athletic coordinator and head football coach. He said new facilities would help engage students in extracurricular activities that make them feel more connected to the school and can help improve or maintain their academic performance.
“We’re not just about athletics. We’re here to change lives,” he said. “We do character development. We do community service. We do things like that where they’re involved in our athletic teams, and that helps make them a better person as well.”
He said when students go to other school districts and see their new or updated facilities, it impacts their self-esteem.
“Our kids see that and then they feel like they’re really not worthy of it,” he said.
The current athletic facilities at Travis ECHS are outdated. The football field is uneven and there are patches of dirt and rocks where grass should be. Only a couple of lights, that were paid for with grant money, can be used to illuminate the field at night. In the 19 years that Martinez has worked at Travis ECHS, he said he has broken his foot three times by stepping on divots in the athletic fields. Beyond the athletic fields, the weight room also has a slew of maintenance issues. Martinez said there is termite damage in the girls’ bathroom and unreliable AC, and, just recently, two of the overhead lights started sparking and smoking while students were working out.
“That’s the kind of stuff we have to deal with,” Martinez said.
He said a new school and facilities would be huge for students and the broader community.
“I think it just goes back to the confidence factor, making sure the kids are involved and having the very best for our students and our student athletes, so we can prepare them to go out and make a difference in the world,” he said. “Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about us. It’s about the kids.”
How much will the bond cost residents?
In Texas, a school district’s total tax rate is made up of two different tax rates. One is for maintenance and operations, or M&O, which uses local property tax revenues to help fund a district's annual budget. In Austin ISD’s case, money raised through the M&O rate is also subject to recapture. More than half of Austin ISD’s property tax revenue for the 2022-2023 school year will be sent to the state.
The other tax rate, known as interest and sinking, is levied by the district to pay for bond debt and is not subject to recapture. If Austin ISD’s bond package is approved, it requires a one-penny increase to the I&S tax rate. But, the district's total tax rate is dropping this year because the M&O rate is decreasing by about 6 cents.
Austin ISD's school board has set a tax rate for the 2023 fiscal year of $0.9966 per $100 dollars of taxable value. Even though that's the lowest the tax rate has been since 1993, residents could still see their property taxes increase because home values have risen.
So, if the bond passes, how will that affect the property taxes homeowners pay to the district? Here's one example: If you own a home worth $650,000 and have a homestead exemption, the district estimates the one-cent increase to the I&S tax rate would cost you an additional $4.54 per month.
If the bond is approved, how long will the projects take?
Segura said the district has an aggressive plan for completing the 2022 bond projects if voters approve the package. He expects certain projects to get underway in the summer of 2023.
“Typically, that’s going to be security-related projects,” he said. “So your lock projects, your fencing projects, your roofing projects.”
Segura said the first modernization projects are targeted for December of 2024.
“It is a very efficient timeline. It’s very aggressive. But for us, every time you move down a project timeline you mitigate risk,” he said.
Overall, completing all of the bond projects would take five to six years.
Early voting for the Nov. 8 election begins on Oct. 24. You can find more information about what’s on the ballot in KUT’s Travis County Voter Guide.