A North Texas school district used a slew of controversial tactics to pass a property tax rate change in a low-turnout special election Saturday.

Lancaster Independent School District’s tax rate “swap and drop” proposition passed by a 68- to 32-percent margin. Only 621 of the district’s 24,510 registered voters participated in the tax ratification election — a dismal 2.53-percent turnout.

The low turnout is no coincidence. Using a common “hide the vote” tactic, Lancaster’s school board scheduled the TRE for Saturday, August 25, instead of the uniform November election date when voter turnout is higher.

“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 also employed the controversial practice of “rolling polling” — moving polling sites to different locations during early voting — a tactic that allowed the district to target sympathetic voters while depressing general turnout even more. All the early voting polling locations were on district campuses, and early voting began the day after school employees returned to campus.

LISD went further, hosting “back to school” parties for parents, 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 within the polling places.

Amy Hedtke, an opponent of the tax swap who formed the group It’s OK to Vote NO, Lancaster!, walked the district distributing door hangers with information about the TRE. Hedtke reported on Facebook Saturday:

Just spoke with a mom in Lancaster that felt pressured to vote in order to get her daughter’s schedule at one of the ISD’s TRE “information” events during early voting. “There was a checklist that we got marked off as we visited the booths, and one of the booths was to vote.”

Shortly after that, Hedtke posted video showing an LISD board member who called the Lancaster police to “report” Hedtke’s legal distribution of political literature. Hedtke said the school board member was also removing her literature from people’s doors, which is not legal.

“This is what the Lancaster ISD school board will resort to, to try to shut down opposition to their tax ratification election,” said Hedtke in her video of the incident.

The district was correct to perceive opponents’ block-walking as a threat to its agenda. Hedkte says her group dropped 750 door hangers on Friday and Saturday, with measurable impact on voting results.

In-person early voting, including by voters at the early voting parties, favored the tax swap proposition by a 269-65 margin. Election Day voters were almost evenly divided, 124-100.

The new tax rate will increase by about $2 million the amount of tax money the district can spend on operating expenses, mainly employees’ salaries, and decrease the amount of money allocated to paying off debt.

The district’s maintenance and operations (M&O) tax rate will go up by 13 cents, offset by a 14-cent drop in the interest and sinking (I&S) rate for 2018. The rate “swap” required voter approval via a tax ratification election because the district raised the M&O rate above $1.04 per $100 of assessed taxable value. The I&S rate can be raised again in future years without voter approval.

Several Metroplex-area school districts have special tax rate elections scheduled for September 8, including Azle, Cedar Hill, Duncanville, Ennis, and Keller. Early voting in those TREs is in progress.

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.