Austin Chamber Publicly Supports $1.1 Billion School District Bond

Austin school district documents obtained by the American-Statesman indicate the district could close four underenrolled campuses under the bond proposal: Brooke, Metz, Norman and Sanchez (pictured) elementary schools. 2011 Jay Janner/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce on Thursday endorsed the Austin school district’s $1.1 billion bond proposition that will go before voters in November.

“The success of Austin ISD is intrinsically linked with the success of Austin,” chamber board Chairwoman Ellen Wood said. “Quality public education is a crucial tool in recruiting employers to the region. This bond will help keep the Central Texas region competitive in an increasingly demanding marketplace.”

The endorsement was considered a win among supporters of the bond, the largest attempted in the school district’s history.

Trustee Cindy Anderson said having the chamber’s support is a nod to the district that it is educating students with the skills necessary to meet the workforce’s needs.

“I do feel like it’s a big vote of confidence,” Anderson said.

The Austin school board decided to place the bond on the ballot as a single proposition, a departure from previous bond elections.

But after the failure of half of the district’s $892 million bond package in 2013, which was broken into four propositions, district officials decided not to hedge their bets on this one.

More recently, Round Rock voters shot down all three school propositions in that district’s $572 million bond package.

Despite the large sum, such bonds in other districts, such as Dallas and Houston, have succeeded.

The Austin district also said the bond’s passage wouldn’t increase the tax rate. Austin district officials said that for this bond package, they could layer the debt over time in such a way that the tax rate wouldn’t increase.

Wood, during Thursday’s announcement, said the chamber’s board of directors gathered financial experts who crunched the numbers, using conservative projections, and concluded there is a “very high probability” that the bond won’t raise the school tax rate.

However, the bond plan includes the possibility of closing or consolidating schools, which has drawn criticism from some in the community. Trustees haven’t discussed the closure of specific schools publicly, only showing a line item on bond package documents that unspecified land sales would lower the cost of the bond package by $40 million. But documents obtained by the American-Statesman indicate four underenrolled schools could be shuttered: Brooke, Metz, Norman and Sanchez elementaries.

The possible closure of the East Austin schools prompted some community members to announce they are forming their own political action committee, Save East Austin Schools.

Monica Sanchez, who made an unsuccessful bid for school board three years ago, is co-founder of the political action committee. She said the group will oppose the bond unless the school board amends the facilities master plan to “equitably redistribute resources to East Austin schools.”

“The bond process was and is critically flawed,” Sanchez said. “The bond, if passed with the current Facilities Master Plan, would continue Austin ISD’s and city of Austin’s long history of institutional racism. We call on all Austinites to participate in creating more equitable and integrated solutions for the benefit of all Austin public school children.”

In a letter, obtained by the Statesman under the Public Information Act, an Austin district trustee last month mentioned possible school consolidations to state House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

Because she couldn’t attend a legislative hearing, Trustee Julie Cowan asks Huberty in the letter to consider the additional facilities funding for districts in House Bill 21. Cowan said if the bond passes, the district plans to rebuild or modernize 16 schools, but adds that the rising costs of living in Austin has driven families to neighboring districts, which will prompt the school district to close schools. Ultimately, the Austin district didn’t get any additional money from HB 21.

“We will be consolidating many of our underenrolled schools, which is financially prudent, but emotionally difficult for many communities,” Cowan said.

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