A North Texas school district that needs voter approval for a proposed property tax rate change is using controversial tactics to help ensure its passage.

Lancaster Independent School District is asking voters for a 13-cent increase in its maintenance and operations (M&O) tax rate, offset by a 14-cent decrease in the interest and sinking (I&S) rate. The tax rate “Swap and Drop” requires voter approval via a Tax Ratification Election (TRE) because the district wants to raise the M&O rate above $1.04 per $100 of assessed taxable value.

Lancaster’s school board scheduled the TRE for Saturday, August 25 – not the November uniform election date, when voter turnout is higher and taxpayers can save the added cost of a special election.

“It is preposterously bad public policy to spend taxpayer money to hold special elections in the dog days of summer that almost always have a low voter turnout,” says State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston), who pledged to back legislation next year requiring all tax-related votes to be held on the November general election date.

The district is also employing the controversial practice of “rolling polling” — moving polling sites to different locations during early voting — a tactic that allows the district to target sympathetic voters and depress general turnout even further.

LISD scheduled several “mobile” TRE voting sites that will move from campus to campus throughout the early voting period from August 8 through August 18. Lancaster’s teachers and staff return to work at these campuses/voting locations on August 7.

Moving polling sites daily makes it harder for most district voters to participate, while facilitating turnout among voters the district expects to be favorably disposed toward the TRE: LISD teachers and staff. (After all, no other voters will have polling places delivered to their worksites.)

LISD is also hosting several “2018 Campus Tiger Welcome Events” during the week of August 13-19, which overlaps the early voting period. The events are open to vendors, and according to the vendor registration form, “giveaways are encouraged and promotional items are allowed.”

The TRE rolling polling dates/campus locations and the welcome event dates/locations are a near-perfect match:

A school-sponsored event with vendor giveaways is scheduled for almost every single TRE early voting date/site. Such events provide opportunities for district staff to promote the tax swap to voters. While educators are prohibited by law from electioneering on behalf of tax or bond elections, the district’s informational materials are uniformly pro-tax swap.

Despite backing from election integrity advocates, legislation that would have mandated uniform election dates and eliminated rolling polling failed to pass in the 2017 session. Until the laws are changed, school districts and other local taxing entities are free to manipulate elections with these voting-process tactics.

Lancaster ISD is one of several Metroplex-area school districts asking voters to approve a tax rate change for 2018.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.