Austin Independent School District wants to raise $1 billion to spend on facilities, safety and technology improvements. In the past, voters have been supportive of school bonds. But a few bonds have been rejected over the years, and a group that's played a role in those defeats has set its sights on this one, too.
Supporters of the bond have been pushing a few key points in an effort to win votes in November. One is that each and every school gets some of this money. That gives parents across the district incentive to vote for the bond. Second, the district has devised a way to borrow the money without a school tax rate increase. The district is able to hold the rate steady through a number of moves, including the refinancing of some old debt at a lower rate.
But when Don Zimmerman hears this pitch, he gets angry.
“That’s a deceptive way to mislead people into thinking they’re not going to pay more taxes,” the former Austin City Council member said.
Zimmerman heads the Travis County Taxpayers Union, an activist group that has opposed several local bonds, including unsuccessful elections in Round Rock ISD and Travis County.
His main complaint is that focusing on the tax rate – and telling voters their rate won’t go up – will make people think their tax bills won’t go up if they approve the bond.
“And what the school district is saying is, 'Well, that’s no tax increase because we didn’t increase the tax rate,'” Zimmerman said. “You know, tax rate, tax rate, tax rate. You don’t pay a tax rate; you pay a tax bill.”
He said as property values continue to increase, so will residents' bills – even if the rate stays the same. That's true for any tax rate, from city taxes to county taxes to the hospital district and so on.
And it’s true that the district has led with the idea of the rate being the same if the bond passes. But on the bond FAQ page on the district's website, there's this question: “I've heard AISD say this bond will not raise my property tax rate. How is that possible?”
As part of its answer, the district admits rising property values play a role. The district says it has actually lowered the tax rate by 5 cents since 2013. That means if you had a $200,000 home, and your home value stayed the same, you’d be paying about $100 less on your tax bill now than in 2013.
But the district also points out that increasing home values have easily erased that savings.