'Biggest investment in students': Austin school board calls $2.44 billion bond election, largest in district history

·5 min read

The Austin school board voted unanimously Thursday evening to call a $2.44 billion bond election in November to repair aging buildings, address safety deficiencies and improve athletic fields, among other enhancements.

This record bond — more than twice as large as the $1.1 billion bond package voters approved in 2017 — if approved in the Nov. 8 election, would increase the property tax rate by 1 cent per $100 valuation. For a $600,000 home, taxes would increase by $60 a year, district officials said.

Officials said the bond is necessary because the district loses about half its tax revenue to the state’s school recapture program.

More: Hays County to add 6 school resource officers, but experts say that's not the answer

The package includes about $75.5 million for districtwide technology upgrades; $46 million for secure entry vestibules, fencing and locks; $25.7 million for new buses with air conditioning; as well as $44 million to reconstruct Nelson Field and its bus terminal. There’s also about $250 million allocated to fix “critical deficiencies” across the district, such as heating, ventilation, air conditioning and drainage.

“I want to make sure that operations takes up as few brain cells from a teacher as possible — not worrying about whether the AC is going to turn on, not worrying about whether the water is going to run, not having them worry about whether they’re safe or not,” said Matias Segura, the district’s chief operations officer.

Under the package, 14 schools are slated for a full modernization: Allison, Andrews, Barrington, Harris, Houston, Langford, Linder, Oak Springs, Pecan Springs, Wooldridge and Wooten elementary schools; Burnet Middle School; Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy and Travis Early College High School.

Eleven schools are up for phased modernizations: Hill Elementary School; Dobie, Martin and O. Henry middle schools; Anderson, Austin and McCallum high schools; and Crockett, LBJ, Navarro and Northeast early college high schools.

These 25 modernizations would cost about $1.7 billion. Most of the campuses on the list are designated as Title I schools, meaning they serve a high percentage of low-income students. Many also are located along Austin's eastern crescent, which stretches from Rundberg Lane in North Austin to Dove Springs in Southeast Austin.

“What is exciting about this proposal is that it represents the biggest investment in students in historically underserved communities and in Title I schools, while providing a benefit to every campus in our district,” interim Superintendent Anthony Mays said.

Debate over equity

District leaders said they approached this year’s bond proposal with equity at the forefront to help rebuild community trust after they closed four campuses in 2019, three of which were in East Austin and home to historically underserved communities. Instead of just looking at facility conditions, district officials and the committees that developed several bond options examined a school’s proportion of underserved students and “neighborhood social vulnerability,” an index by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that measures a community’s ability to withstand a crisis, such as a winter storm.

More: Austin, Central Texas districts scramble to hire hundreds of teachers before school starts

However, equity was often a sticking point throughout the bond development process. The package has gone through multiple alterations after critical feedback from trustees and residents before the board ultimately approved the $2.44 billion proposal.

“I have never seen AISD bring forward such an equity-focused bond,” Trustee LaTisha Anderson said. “I never thought I would see that, so I’m pretty speechless.”

Anderson was among the trustees who criticized an earlier $2.25 billion bond proposal the district presented to the board on Tuesday. Multiple trustees and residents expressed hesitation about this proposal, saying it unfairly shifted money away from schools with majority Black and Hispanic students to schools with mostly white students.

For example, the $2.25 billion proposal included less money for LBJ Early College High School and Northeast Early College High School, which are located in Anderson’s district, and more funding for Austin High School compared with an earlier proposal that was largely based on work from the bond steering committee, a 17-member group of community members that helped draft proposals.

“I am not and will not support a last-minute shift of over $100 million that … is a direct shift from Black and Brown to white,” Trustee Kevin Foster said of the district’s earlier proposal, although he said he supported its increased funding of Navarro Early College High School, which is located in his district.

A costlier option

Last month, school officials released two other bond options — a $1.55 billion package that wouldn’t increase the tax rate and a $2.18 billion package that came with a 1 cent rate increase per $100 valuation — that were ultimately updated after community outreach.

By restructuring the district’s debt, Chief Financial Officer Ed Ramos said the district is able to afford the current $2.44 billion proposal. It includes the bond steering committee's original recommendations: $157 million to modernize Burnet Middle School, $116 million to modernize LBJ Early College High School and $117 million to modernize Northeast Early College High School.

Foster said with these changes he now “vigorously supports” the bond. “I haven't been able to see bond packages across the land, but I am willing to bet that you will never see or you have not seen such an equity-forward effort,” he said.

“We live in a state that has chosen to chronically underfund our public schools,” Trustee Lynn Boswell said. “This bond is an opportunity to show that we live in a city that doesn't agree with that. We live in a city that values education.”

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin school board calls largest bond election in district history