In a letter sent September 25th, Katy Independent School District apologized to parents for releasing their email addresses via Public Information requests to PACs participating on both sides of the November bond election. The release resulted in parents receiving information from the pro-bond PAC urging them to support the package on the November ballot.
According to the Texas Public Information Act, email addresses of members of the public provided for the purpose of communicating with a governmental body are considered confidential. Katy ISD subsequently apologized to parents for this breach and assured this kind of thing would not happen again. Marring that assurance, however, is the fact that this wasn’t the first time.
In 2010, many KISD residents reported receiving pro-bond robo-calls on their cell and work phone numbers. KISD Trustee Joe Adams said in a statement released by the district that the numbers were legally released following a public information request that he filed April 28 and received May 4. The district claimed that since the Public Information Act provides no exception to withhold secondary numbers, that information is considered public and therefore disclosure is required. Many residents, however, reported receiving pro-bond robo-calls in the weeks approaching the bond election on phone numbers that were not in service when the request was made in late April.
By themselves, such activities call into question the district’s motivations and their bonding procedure. However, there is ostensibly more involved in their overall goal to fatten the district’s wallet.
Anonymous remarks made by a member of this year’s bond committee detail some very serious lapses in accountability and transparency, if true. Among the claims made are that “members were simply there to validate administrators’ wish-lists,” “requested source numbers were unavailable,” and perhaps most egregious, “if we suggested the stadium be on a separate line item from schools, we were told the truth…the stadium as planned would not pass, so it was rolled into the larger package.”
These admissions represent something much more pernicious than myopic policymaking on the part of administrators. They show an intent to admittedly violate the will of their boss—the voters—by actively limiting their options and information.
This is hardly surprising, considering how Texans statewide are often kept in the dark when asked to approve new debt. The minimalist requirements of Texas’ current election code allow districts to exclude nearly half of the actual cost from the ballot language. For instance, this November, while KISD voters will see one of the largest debt propositions in the entire state at $748 million, they won’t see the hidden interest cost, which puts the total cost of this particular package at $1,533,793,429 over twenty years.
Texas is currently second in the nation in terms of local debt per-capita. According to the comptroller, a whopping forty percent of that local debt, according to the Comptroller, is the interest cost, which current law does not require districts or other taxing entities to include in their ballot language. Likewise, Katy ISD’s current tax-supported debt of $1.23 billion (and the inevitable effect the new proposition will have on their property tax-rates) will also be missing from the language asking voters to approve the new debt in November.
Unfortunately, school districts all over Texas often engage in a myriad of tactics to tilt the field favorably towards bond packages. Many of the typical cast of characters can be seen at work in Katy as well. The pro-bond 1Katy PAC’s report shows engineers, architects, and other would-be beneficiaries of the proposed bond investing in this debt-election in the usual way. Along with others, these are some of the influences that have contributed to Texas’ unenviable position at second in the nation for local debt per-capita, making a strong case for transparency-minded reform.
The Texas Comptroller and the Coalition on Local Government (Americans for Prosperity, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Grassroots America We the People) have called for several transparency and accountability reforms, which can be viewed in their entirety here. With $6 billion plus interest in new debt statewide on the ballot this November, Katy voters have an opportunity to let officials all over the state know that engaged Texans won’t buy the vague rhetoric of doomsayers who favor continuing the status quo.
Texans need transparency and accountability. Not next election. Not two years from now. Immediately.