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In deep red Azle, the school district’s board of trustees likes to say they are fiscally conservative. But saying it doesn’t make it so.

They like to brag about the time they reduced school property taxes 41 cents from when the tax rate was $1.60—but the reality is, that tax reduction was mandated by the state legislature.

They like to brag about having a low tax rate “for the area.” But when you look statewide, Azle Independent School District is still in the top half, and their maintenance and operations (M&O) tax rate is the highest allowed by state law at $1.17 per $100 valuation. Also, it’s not from lack of trying to raise it—voters in the past have rejected bonds that would have increased taxes, like the $90 million bond in 2008. And trustees already said in January that they want to try for another tax hike with a new bond this November to “go to the next level on Athletics”.

Perhaps the biggest recent example of the lack of fiscal restraint can be seen in Azle ISD’s 2016 bond election. Voters enthusiastically approved bonds to replace the aged Walnut Creek and “Rock School,” among other items. The annual bond payment for a $60 million bond is about $3 million per year. However, the board raised annual property taxes by over $6 million—double what might be needed.

But it gets worse.

Total debt payments for the entire district, including the 2016 bonds, were only $7 million. The existing interest and sinking (I&S) tax rate at the time was $0.163 and already generated enough revenue that the board did not have to raise taxes at all.

But it gets worse.

Less than two years later, the district’s board and administration tried to claim they had saved almost exactly the same amount of money that they had just raised taxes for—but through refinancing and higher property values. They proposed to lower the I&S tax back down to slightly less than what it had been before the 2016 bond election if (and only if) voters raised the M&O tax rate by the same amount.

But it gets worse.

The justification for the “Penny Swap” was $2.5 million extra “reward” money from the state per year. Shifting strategies, the board claimed they were going to move the money back from the M&O to the I&S account—this was all just about getting extra money from the state. The bonus to this idea: it would deflect people away from asking for the board to just lower the tax rate, because this meant there was no “extra” local money.

But it gets worse.

In reality, Azle ISD had just hit Chapter 41 “rich” district status earlier in 2018. So, instead of getting a “reward,” the district is budgeted to get almost $1 million less from the state this school year than it received last year. If the election really had just been about moving the money around to collect a bonus from the state, the district would have been big losers. But they got their extra money, alright—it just came from local voters. And that was always the plan because if you look at the 2018-2019 budget, it clearly shows $0 from M&O going toward debt service.

It was two years’ worth of tall tales just to raise taxes for the general budget. Because in deep red Azle, a straight-up 12.5 percent tax increase for maintenance and operations probably would never have passed.

I know my liberal friends have no problem raising property taxes to get more money for the schools. I get it. But like I said, saying you are fiscally conservative doesn’t make it so.

This is a commentary submitted and published with the author’s permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to [email protected].

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