Four school districts across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex passed property tax increases in low-turnout special elections held Saturday. Voters in a fifth district voted down a rate hike.

Cedar Hill Independent School District voters defeated their school board’s proposed operating tax rate increase by a 59 to 41 percent margin. Four other area school districts passed their rate changes, resulting in the highest possible maintenance and operations (M&O) property tax rate for taxpayers in Azle, Duncanville, Ennis, and Keller ISD.

School boards in all five districts wanted voters to approve increases in their M&O tax rates from $1.04 to $1.17 per $100 of assessed property value — the maximum allowed by state law. Any proposed M&O tax rate above $1.04 triggers a tax ratification election (TRE).

All five districts submitted plans that kept the overall tax rate the same or dropped it a penny, redirecting 13 cents from debt service to operations. But with rising property values, keeping rates the same or even lowering them slightly still results in tax increases, meaning more tax revenue for districts and higher school tax bills for taxpayers.

Turnout in Saturday’s tax rate elections ranged from 4.76 to 8.25 percent.

Single-digit voter turnout was predictable, yet each school board scheduled its TRE for September 8, instead of the uniform November election date when voter turnout is higher and the cost to taxpayers is lower. Using this common “hide the vote” tactic allows districts to target sympathetic voters while depressing general turnout.

“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.

Lancaster ISD passed a similar tax rate hike in an August 25 TRE with just 2.5 percent voter turnout. In addition to hiding the vote in a summer special election, the district used the controversial practice of “rolling polling” — moving polling sites to different locations during early voting. All the early voting locations were on district campuses. Rolling polling isn’t allowed during November general elections, another reason school districts choose to hold tax and bond elections on non-uniform dates.

LISD went further, hosting “back to school” parties staffed by district employees that coincided with the early voting rolling polling locations. School employees were observed at multiple early voting parties openly advocating for the TRE, on school property and inside the polling places. It’s illegal to electioneer within 100 feet of the outside entrance to a building housing a polling place.

Below are results of the September 8 TREs:

Three other Metroplex school districts — Dallas, Frisco, and Richardson — are holding TREs during the November 6 general election. All are asking voters for the maximum M&O tax rate. Frisco ISD will also have a $691 million bond proposition on the ballot.

Voters concerned about rising property tax bills should not only turn out to vote in local tax rate elections, but also encourage lawmakers to pass legislation that ends rolling polling and requires all property tax-related votes to be held on uniform election dates.

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.