KLBJ reported this afternoon that Austin ISD has a public meeting tonight to discuss a possible $.05 property tax increase, ostensibly to pay for teacher pay raises (more in this Fox 7 news article).  A few man-on-the-street interviews found that, gasp!, ordinary citizens would gladly fork over cash to pay for teacher pay raises.  But the question is not as simple as “do you like teachers and want to pay them more.”  The question is, what is the school district doing with the other money they already get?  Why is there a budget shortfall?  What’s up with the huge debt (and the constant requests for new bonds – a different story altogether)?  Why do they keep asking us for more money, and rarely seem to improve when they get it?

I decided to check and see if I could easily get the information regarding a tax increase on the AISD website.  If you’ve been there before, you know the front page is a rather plain list of links to things the administration believes you will find important.  The possibility of a tax increase is not listed anywhere on the front page, and tonight’s meeting is not listed on the front page.  On the right hand side, in the maroon sidebar, you can find a link to the 2010-2011 recommended budget. On that page, you’ll get a detailed explanation about what the school district will be asking for in the budget, a link to the .pdf proposal, and a jargonized version of the possible tax scenarios:

Scenario A: M&O Tax Rate at $1.079/100 and I&S Tax Rate at $0.148/100. Total Tax Rate is $1.227/100

Scenario B: M&O Tax Rate at $1.129/100 and I&S Tax Rate at $0.148/100. Total Tax Rate is $1.277/100

Scenario C: M&O Tax Rate at $1.170/100 and I&S Tax Rate at $0.148. Total Tax Rate is $1.318/100

“M&O” is “Maintenance and Operations.”  This is the main part of an ISD’s budget.  “I&S” is “Interest and Sinking.”

I finally found information about tonight’s meeting by clicking through the following:  “Board of Trustees” on the left hand side of the front page, then “Meetings” on the left hand side, and then looking on the right hand side in the green side bar, under “Webcasts.”  Tonight’s meeting will be broadcast online, which is good to know, but if you hadn’t taken the time to look for the webcast link, it is doubtful that you would have known anything about it.

You can view the agenda for tonight’s meeting by clicking through the “Agendas” link, but I can’t link you back to it directly, so I’ll just copy and paste the pertinent parts of the agenda for tonight’s meeting here.  It starts at #5 because the board has a closed session before the public meeting at 7pm.

5. Public Hearing on Recommended 2010-11 Budget, Tax Rate and Potential Tax Ratification Election (TRE) – 7:00 PM (60 Minutes)

6. Recommended 2010-11 Budget, Tax Rate and Potential Tax Ratification Election (TRE) (Discussion) – 8:00 PM (90 Minutes)

6.1 Discussion of 2010-11 Recommended Budget, Tax Rate and Potential Tax Ratification Election

A Google search for information on the tax increase did not turn up much that was fresh and easy for the average citizen to decipher, but I did find this article by Richard Whittaker at the Austin Chronicle.  Interesting bit (tax-and-spenders’ names are highlighted so you can remember who NOT to vote for next time):

“…unless the board adopts a budget that requires a tax increase, there won’t be an election. While [Outgoing Education Austin President Louis] Malfaro argued that the May board elections had increased trustees’ focus on the rate, so far only three board members – Lori Moya, Sam Guzman, and Tamala Barksdale – have come out solidly in support of that spending. Board Vice President Vince Torres said the others are still waiting for a recommendation from [Superintendent] Carstarphen, and he voiced frustration that she hadn’t given one already.”

A 5 cent increase would mean about a $120 tax increase a year for the median valued home in Austin. It isn’t clear that the proposed tax increases will only go towards teacher pay increases, and it isn’t clear from the budget that waste will be cut to offset the increase in spending.  Finally, we know that AISD will likely approve some kind of hike – it’s just a question of whether the amount is high enough to force a ballot measure.  Austin ISD officials like to brag that they have a relatively low tax rate – but just because you’re not already taxing people to the hilt doesn’t mean you should raise rates.

Some things about Austin ISD you should keep in mind when deciding whether or not you should agree to higher AISD taxes:

1 – They got a 3.9% increase in 2008, on the same reasons.

2 – While AISD had only one school rated “Academically Unacceptable” this year, ten elementary schools saw their ratings drop.  AISD officials claimed this was due to the standards measured, and not actually the schools’ performance.

3 – Austin ISD has over $1.1 billion in outstanding bond debt and interest.

4 – In the 2007-2008 fiscal year (the last year for which compiled data is available), AISD spent an average of $9,062 per student and was rated only “academically acceptable,” a rating they still hold.

For those keeping score at home, this is now four major property tax-collecting entities considering tax hikes of some kind for the 2010-2011 fiscal year (Austin Community College is also mulling an increase).  Taken individually, they aren’t that bad, but add them together and you are guaranteed to feel it next year.  Keep in mind, too, that this is just about the *rate* of taxation, or the percentage of your appraised value you will be charged.  Appraisals, by state law, can increase up to 10% per year – and rarely, if ever, do central appraisal districts not take full advantage of the allowed 10%.  So while an extra 5 or 6% on your current appraisal may not seem so bad, consider if your appraisal goes up 10%, and you’re paying that extra 6% on the new appraisal.

Constant vigilance, folks.  Mad Eye Moody clearly had the right idea.