Texas voters have been less willing to approve school bonds in recent years
On a beautiful, warm fall day, Jeanette Ball, the superintendent of the Judson Independent School District, stood outside the back entrance to one of her district’s elementary schools and pointed to the free-standing gym a few yards away.
“Usually both of these (doors) are open, and anybody could come in,” Ball said, pointing to large garage-like doors. “It's easy access to the kids, so this is why we would want our gym to be air conditioned.”
A P.E. class was in full swing as she spoke, with the sound of children’s shouts and the squeak of shoes pushing against the floor drifting out from the gym’s open doors. The doors are kept open to let cool air in.
If voters approve Judson’s bond on Nov. 8, Ball will be able to install air conditioning in school gyms and keep those gym doors closed.
She also wants to add key card locks to all school entrances, cameras at front entrances so secretaries can see who they’re buzzing inside, and a universal locking system that would lock all school doors with a touch of a button.
“We knew we knew that we needed a bond, because that's why we did it a year ago,” Ball said. “But with the tragic event that happened in Uvalde, it certainly created a sense of urgency that we needed to go for the bond again, sooner rather than later.”
Last November, Judson ISD had three bond propositions on the ballot. Voters said no to all three. It’s part of a trend seen statewide the past few elections. This election, several districts are coming back to voters to ask them to reconsider, with school safety a top priority.
Another San Antonio district, East Central ISD, has also put bonds back on the ballot.
The results could be telling: Will worries about the economy or fear of the next school shooting win out? According to district leaders, new state laws that changed the way school bonds appeared on ballots in 2020 further complicate matters.
Ball said she thinks Judson’s bonds failed last year because voters didn’t understand how the bonds would be used and were confused about how it would affect the tax rate.
2021 was Judson’s first bond election under a new provision in state law that requires school districts to include the phrase “THIS IS A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE” in all caps on every bond ballot — even if the district can pay back the bond without raising its tax rate.
“The language on the ballot says that it could be a tax rate increase. So, there was a lot of confusion out there, because we were going around saying it's not [a tax rate increase] but the ballot language said that [it was],” Ball said.
School districts also had to separate out different types of projects into separate ballot propositions starting in 2020, giving voters the option to say no to a football stadium, for instance, while approving the construction of new schools. But in Judson’s case, last year voters said no to both the stadium and the schools.
According to Dax González with the Texas Association of School Boards, the percentage of school bonds that passed dropped significantly the year the new provisions went into effect, and it has stayed down ever since.
“They usually stick around the 70% passage rate, like between 70 and 80%,” González said. “We saw a pretty steep decrease from 77% in 2019, to 62% in 2020.”
But because the new provisions went into effect at the beginning of the pandemic, González said fears about the economy and frustration at schools likely also played a role in the drop. He said active campaigns against bonds are also having an impact.
“But I think what some people are not really hearing, is that there's just no other source right now. If the state isn't going to help districts build facilities, then districts need to take it upon themselves to do it,” González said.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, advocated for the new ballot language. The Foundation’s James Quintero said it increases transparency.
“What the intent of the provision was, was to make sure that voters were making a connection between new debt and new taxes,” he said, adding that he thought it was accurate to call bonds property tax increases even if the school district isn’t raising their property tax rate.
“Even if you hold your tax rates steady and you promise voters that there will not be a tax rate increase, the fact is that property values are skyrocketing,” Quintero said. “And in that kind of environment, where your values are going up and your tax rate is holding steady, that's a tax increase.”
González disagreed. He said the ballot language puts the onus on school districts for things outside their control. The appraiser sets property values, not schools.
“It's a thorny issue,” he said. “But, just plain language, it really is deceptive to me to say that something is a property tax increase when you're keeping your tax rates steady.”
For Judson ISD, Ball said the important thing is clearly communicating with voters to convince them the bonds are worth it even if they have to pay a little more. This go around, Judson actually will have a slight tax rate increase even though fewer things are in the bond.
“What has changed drastically is the prices,” Ball said. “For example, last time a middle school was about $70 million. Right now, to build that exact same campus — we didn't change anything — $106 million.”
Ball said Judson is projecting a $0.01 tax rate increase to pay for the bonds, which would add $25 a year to the property tax bill for a $250,000 home.
It’s a price she hopes voters are willing to pay to keep their children safe.
The school shooting at Robb Elementary showed her just how important it is to be able to lock doors quickly and communicate clearly.
“Now we all see that it can happen anywhere. It can happen anywhere if it happened in Uvalde,” Ball said. “I was a superintendent there for five years. I walked those hallways. I knew those families.”