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‘All means all’: Austin school bonds proposal meets with big success at polls

On November 7, voters in Austin, Texas gave the city’s educators and school-aged kids a reason to smile by giving the thumbs up to a $1.1 billion investment in the city’s schools.

It’s the biggest bond package ever approved in central Texas, but more impressive still was the victory margin: a whopping 72% of voters approved the effort to secure funding for new school construction and to upgrade existing aging school facilities.

“I feel like it says that people don’t just like their public schools, they love their public schools,” Kendall Pace, president of the Austin Independent School District (AISD) Board, said after the vote was tallied, according to the Austin-American Statesman. “It’s a great feeling that the city believes in the public good. This process was better devised and more transparent.”

Pace was comparing the November 7 vote to a similar but less successful school financing bond initiative presented four years ago, when voters rejected two of the four proposed issues. That failure sent city officials back to the drawing board to craft a fresh bond proposal that would secure majority support. Based upon the results on Election Day, they succeeded in that mission. 

In keeping with the goal of transparency, AISD published a comprehensive list of the planned improvements and new construction. Moreover, the district website included a page with pull-down menus leading to individual fact sheets detailing proposed improvements to each facility in the district, making it easy for parents and taxpayers to quickly grasp how schools in their neighborhoods would benefit in clear and concrete terms. Voters could also download a 192-page “Bond Book,” with photographs, charts and extensive details on the proposed improvements, to get a clearer sense of how district officials planned to invest the bond proceeds in the community.

The Austin school bond package isn’t just good news for the city’s schools. It’s also a powerful testament to how city leaders and taxpayers can make the most of carefully structured long-term debt to meet community needs.

Particularly in a time of low interest rates, which lower the cost of borrowing, long-term debt financing through muni bonds is often a cost-effective way to spur investment in local priorities like street and bridge construction, water and drainage systems, transportation facilities, public safety, schools and hospitals, and other vital community needs.

Muni bonds are popular with investors seeking to manage risk and return, while generating a reliable stream of income, within a diversified portfolio. Furthermore, many muni bonds enjoy tax advantages—interest payments received by the bondholder are often exempt from federal, state, and/or local taxes. (If you’re unsure about the tax status of a particular municipal bond, talk to an investment professional for guidance).

The success of the 2017 AISD bond proposal is a case study in effective policy communication achieving a solid electoral outcome. But for community leaders and school officials in Austin, it’s just the beginning, and now they’ll take up the hard work of delivering on their promises.

“We’re grateful to the voters for placing their trust in Austin ISD, and we’re excited to get started creating 21st-century learning spaces for all our students,” AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz said in a statement. “All means all. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and work together as a community to make these critical investments a reality for the benefit of the nearly 82,000 students at 130 schools throughout the city.”

*Photo courtesy of Austin Independent School District

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