Despite bi-partisan opposition to landmark disclosure and transparency reforms supported by the Texas State Comptroller in HB 14 last session, a few school districts across Texas are considering adopting several “best practices”, voluntarily.
Officials in Birdville ISD (BISD) led by Board President, Cary Hancock, are poised to lead the way by expressing interest in reaching out to the Comptroller’s office for guidance.
Although the BISD board has yet to vote to place the bond referendum on the ballot, sources inside the district indicate the $165 million proposal is likely to pass unanimously at the upcoming meeting on August 14th.
In proactive fashion, citizens have asked the board to add the reform items to the meeting’s agenda for review, discussion and approval.
Representatives from Texans For Fiscal Responsibility and Direct Action Texas met with district administration last week to discuss six key items that would make the debt process more fair and transparent for the community.
They include conducting a fair election, by not using the legal, but unethical tactic of “rolling polling”, a voter targeting scheme we’ve previously exposed following Frisco ISD’s bond election.
Others measures involve reforming the ballot language to include the district’s existing debt levels, the projected effect on property tax rates, and the total projected cost of the bonds (principal and interest).
The Comptroller even provides an online, one-page, sample ballot as a reference.
But the measures go beyond basic transparency. They also include a public pledge on all district materials to only use debt-financing terms that match the use of the funds. Taxpayers would save unnecessary interest costs simply by aligning the debt maturity with the useful life of the items purchased.
In other words, the district would pledge in writing to not use fifteen or twenty-five year debt to purchase iPads or other items that depreciate in only five.
If adopted, BISD would be the first school district in Texas to adopt these higher standards of disclosure, transparency and prudence.
Districts who are willing to do so are demonstrating their commitment to an honest discussion with taxpayers regarding the needs of their students. Although taxpayers should always evaluate the merits of any bond proposal, the adoption of these best practices will help to ensure that their decision has context and is based on objective financial information.
Officials championing these reforms should be celebrated.
On the other hand, those who not only refuse to adopt, but continue to lobby against legislative efforts to improve transparency at either the state or local level, should be admonished.
Below is the text of the request sent to the BISD administration and school board, which includes the five best practices under consideration:
Truth in Local Debt: Ensuring Transparency & Open Government
Purpose: All government entities should be open and transparent when asking voters to approve the issuance of new debt. In addition to disclosing basic financial information, voters should easily be able to see how their money is being spent throughout the debt approval and issuing process. Just as private entities are required to disclose information and be held accountable to their lenders and investors, government entities should satisfy the same requirements with taxpayers. We encourage government entities to voluntarily adopt the below “best practices”, including those recommended by the State Comptroller.
1. No “rolling polling” methods can be used during bond elections. Early voting locations must remain constant throughout the election cycle.
2. Ballots must list the new principal, the projected interest expense and the projected effect on property tax rates and tax levies using median home values.
(See comptroller reforms via sample ballot)
3. Ballot must list district’s current outstanding debt, current outstanding interest, current debt per student alongside state averages.
(See comptroller reforms via sample ballot)
4. There must be a pledge to not use mechanisms that have balloon payments; no Capital Appreciation Bonds.
5. There must be a pledge on all district materials/information that no bonds issued from this referendum will have a maturity date that’s longer than the useful life of the items being purchased.
*This article has been updated to reflect the correct date for the upcoming, special Birdville ISD Board meeting, on August, 14th, 2014.