Note: This story has been updated to include a list of the organizations supporting and opposing the proposed spending.
Leander Independent School District, a large school district northwest of Austin with around 42,000 enrolled students, is asking taxpayers to approve $763 million in bond spending during the May 6 local elections.
More than 100 school districts across the state are asking voters for approval to add a combined $25 billion in bond debt to the $104 billion outstanding. Leander ISD is coming back to voters a year and a half after they rejected $739 million in proposed bond spending for five new schools, building improvements, and renovations to its two performing arts centers while narrowly approving a $33 million bond for technology upgrades.
Leander ISD currently has $968 million ($1.569 billion including interest) in outstanding current interest bonds (interest payments are made regularly until the bond is repaid), plus $747 million in outstanding capital appreciation bonds (interest compounds annually until the bond matures, at which time the entire principal and interest must be paid).
In advertisements for the bond on the district’s website and in mailers sent to residents, the district claims the interest and sinking tax rate will not change if the bond passes, explaining that expected growth in the tax base (new development and increases in property values) will fund the additional debt at the current rate of $0.33 per $100 of property value.
The advertisements also contain a prominent disclaimer notifying voters that the proposition language includes the statement “THIS IS A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE.”
The new proposal, like the one on the November 2021 ballot, is split into three parts.
- Proposition A is a $698.33 million bond for two new elementary schools, land acquisition, security upgrades, building renovations, and new school buses. It includes $28.79 million to install turf at five high schools and one middle school, $6.27 million for new band instruments, and $3.10 million for installing and replacing shade structures over playgrounds.
- Proposition B is $50.82 million for network improvements and new devices, including $18 million for the labor to replace classroom projectors with interactive LED panels that were included in the 2021 bond that voters approved.
- Proposition C is $13.82 million for renovations to the Don Tew Performing Arts Center and the South Performing Arts Center. Mike Howard, the district’s director of fine arts, says the funds would be used to replace the seats, curtains, and lighting in the two centers. Specifically, the existing incandescent lighting would be modernized with LED lighting.
Notably, Proposition A includes $161 million in proposed spending for repurposing three elementary schools in the southern and central portions of the district into an early childhood center, a high school, and a professional learning center. This spending did not make it into the recommendations provided by the 150-member Citizens’ Facility Advisory Committee, which met for about four months beginning in September of last year; instead, it was added by board members and district staff on the Long-Range Planning Committee. LISD leadership justified these plans using demographics data projecting decreased enrollment in the more developed areas of the district, but residents have opposed shutting down the schools and contend administrators are overlooking several important factors.
Composed of parents in the Four Points and Steiner Ranch neighborhoods, the group Save Our Schools points out that 1,800 new homes are currently being developed, that enrollment has not yet recovered from withdrawals during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the same demographics data the district is using shows a 42 percent increase in young families (those with children younger than 5 years old) moving into the area since 2019. In voicing these concerns, they have accused district leadership of failing to solicit their input for the proposed bond package.
In response, Superintendent Bruce Gearing and board of trustees president Trish Bode have committed to keep the schools in question open for the immediate future, but no long-term promises have been made.
The group—made up of conservative parents, teachers, and community leaders—believes the board rushed the process without adequately considering community input or alternatives to closing schools, and says the board could reallocate funds for repurposing the schools in question since they have not actually voted on those projects. In addition, TPU argues the project selection process was not transparent and was stacked in favor of certain members of the CFAC, and they question the estimated costs of several proposed projects, which in some cases are double or triple what similar projects cost a few years ago.
Texas Parents United also accuses board members of ignoring Gearing’s advice to slow down and really engage the community after the failure of the 2021 bond package. In November of last year, he suggested directing the CFAC “to help us engage in this extensive community listening project to help develop these options for long range facilities, including potential future bond packages. I don’t think we can do that in the timeline we have and get something on the May ballot. If we do that, we rush. And if we rush, we don’t really hear what the community has to tell us.”
Other potential issues highlighted by the group include using bond spending to pay for projects that should come out of the annual operating budget, the likelihood that the state will provide funding to pay for security upgrades, and flawed enrollment projections that don’t account for the potential impact of a new school choice program and the upcoming opening of several charter schools in the district.
The executive committee of the Williamson County Republican Party voted this week to oppose the Leander ISD bond package. Leander Area Republican Women and the conservative Wilco 100 PAC are also opposing the proposed bonds.
Early voting runs through May 2, and Election Day is May 6. Around 20,000 voters (a turnout of 12.4 percent in Williamson County and 21.5 percent in Travis County) participated in the November 2021 bond election.