Keller tax election outcome concerns school officials statewide

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
June 22, 2011

By Aman Batheja

The decisive defeat of a suburban Tarrant County school district's effort to raise their tax rate to cover a state funding shortfall is viewed by many as a possible sign that similar revenue raising efforts by other Texas school districts will face the same stiff opposition from voters.

Keller school district voters on Saturday roundly rejected a 13-cent increase in the tax rate that district officials had said is needed to avoid further layoffs and cuts. With more than 14,000 ballots cast, 56 percent of voters opposed the measure.

The election was the first effort by a Texas school district to raise taxes since the end of the regular legislative session in Austin, according to education officials and political organizers. That first-in-line status helped draw considerable interest to the election from outside the school district.

"I think it was important to stop this tax hike so that other ISDs reconsider their plans," said said Giovanni Capriglione, a conservative activist from Southlake who helped organize KISD Families for Fiscal Responsibility, a group that rallied opposition against the measure.

In a matter of weeks, the group raised over $10,000 and drew more than 500 supporters on Facebook.

"I think what you'll see is a lot of government entities will look at this as a barometer," said Capriglione, who lives in neighboring Carroll ISD.

As state lawmakers have wrangled over education funding for months, critics have accused the Republican leadership of forcing tax hikes at the local level through deep cuts in state funding. The outcome in Keller suggests that raising taxes in the current political climate may not be a viable option for many districts.

"What happened in Keller is just very disappointing," said Dax Gonzalez, spokesman for the Texas Association of School Boards. "I know [the district] has worked really hard in the past year to communicate their financial situation and to explain to their community where their money goes."

The district had previously cut $16 million and 200 jobs from next year's spending plan. District officials say they will now need to cut another $16 million, which is expected to lead to scores of teachers getting laid off and the end of regular bus transportation.

Hundreds of Texas school districts have held tax ratification elections since the Legislature mandated property tax relief in 2006 and required districts to get voter approval for most increases.

"At the beginning, most of them were successful, but as time has gone on, fewer of them have been successful," said state Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, a former Arlington ISD board member who sits on the House Appropriations and Higher Education committees.

While a $4 billion cut in education spending is prompting districts to make significant cuts, Patrick said many school officials are relieved that state lawmakers didn't pass a budget that cut billions more, as many had feared.

As they assess their financial situation going forward, districts are now weighing their options. Many have signaled they won't be seeking a tax rate hike. For those that take the issue to voters, it's unclear when such elections would be held.

Many school districts usually hold local elections in May, right before they plan their budgets. But an election overhaul bill signed by Gov. Rick Perry this month will likely force many districts to hold elections in November starting next year.

Outside influence

In the weeks leading up to the election, Keller ISD voters found themselves lobbied from both within and outside the district. The Fort Worth-based United Educators Association of Texas spent over $6,000 on yard signs and mailers in support of the proposal, records show. Empower Texans, an Austin-based conservative group, criticized the district's tax hike request on its website.

Gonzalez expressed frustration with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's decision to publicly oppose the measure. On June 10, the Star-Telegram published a Letter to the Editor from Dewhurst.

"It's true, the school district isn't getting as much as they expected, but only in government is lowering a projected increase called a budget cut...Keller ISD should have the money it needs to keep good teachers in the classroom without raising property taxes," Dewhurst wrote.

"For the lieutenant governor to get involved in a local tax ratification election seems a little odd," Gonzalez said. Dewhurst felt a need to set the record straight about state funding levels, spokesman Mike Walz said.

"The election was set before a final budget was passed, but clearly Keller ISD voters believed this tax proposal went far beyond what was needed to adequately fund education and keep good teachers in the classroom," Walz said.

Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695