Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Holiday For Elections

Last Saturday, while most residents were enjoying Labor Day weekend festivities, the Hutto Independent School District held a Tax Ratification Election. The district asked voters to approve a whopping $0.13 (per $100 of property valuation) tax increase. With about 1,200 votes cast, the measure passed by 67%.

Although Texas School Districts are bound by law to seek voter approval for tax rates above a certain threshold, apparently many districts would really rather not have voters scrutinize education spending too closely. In an attempt to change state laws requiring voter approval, Independent School Districts across Texas spend millions to lobby against these taxpayer protections. Nearly every district funnels lobbying funds through various advocacy groups, and some districts directly contract their own lobbyists. 

However, lest anyone think school districts do not have adequate control over property tax rates, keep in mind that the Leander ISD Board was able to raise rates this year by $1.211 without voter approval. At $1.51187, LISD has the second-highest property tax rate in the county- second only to Hutto’s $1.67 per $100.

Although ISD lobbyists have not yet succeeded in changing voter-approval laws, many school boards and administrators are employing ‘stealth election’ tactics to manipulate outcomes. Due to a loophole in state code, uniform election dates don’t apply to Tax Ratification Elections. Consequently, school districts may hold such elections nearly anytime they please, and many local ISDs have taken full advantage.

One might ask why these school districts don’t just make a valid case for the increases and hold elections on the expected dates. Well, in Hutto’s case, they did. Last November HISD asked voters to approve a much more modest increase of $0.06 per $100 of valuation, but residents rejected the measure by 57% of the vote. This year, the district doubled-down on the rate increase and scheduled the vote for Labor Day weekend. Obviously, unusual election dates make it easier to bring out ISD staff and union votes without having too many of those pesky fiscal Conservatives show up.

Other Williamson County school districts aren’t far behind, albeit with more palatable election dates. The Taylor Independent School District will also ask voters to accept a $0.13 increase on Saturday, September 8. The Georgetown ISD is requesting a much more modest increase of $0.04 per $100 of valuation, with a vote scheduled for Tuesday, October 9.

While the U.S. Constitution makes no provision for education, (a state responsibility,) Americans agree that education is a common good and are willing to support schools with their tax dollars. However, as evidenced by the fierce debates over education spending in recent years, citizens are no longer willing to write a blank check to the local public school. While some districts have been much better stewards of their resources than others, parents have noticed that a budget crunch seems to lead to fewer special education and TAG teachers, but rarely impacts the high school football program.

“Stealth” elections aren’t the only way School districts attempt to evade voter scrutiny. Many school boards liberally spend millions on pet projects they know citizens would not approve. Another Williamson County district, the Round Rock ISD, recently voted to spend leftover bond money and reserve funds to super-size one high school, and also build another $25 million facility for the 98 students enrolled in the at-risk high school. In neither case did the district hold public hearings or allow public input. At the same time, RRISD taxes are scheduled to increase by $0.045 per $100 this year- no voter approval required.

Parents and voters are noticing fundamental problems with our public school structure. Various groups have filed lawsuits to repair state funding issues and the glaring inefficiencies in school spending. Furthermore, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst has announced that he will work with Texas Senator Dan Patrick to finally sanction parental choice in education through vouchers. Hopefully, all these efforts will result in fundamental reforms to our current system. Until then, voters need to pay attention and vote.

Even if it is a holiday weekend.

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