Texas voters approved almost all the bonds on local ballots

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DALLAS – Amid a record turnout for a midterm Congressional election, voters across Texas approved more than 97% of the $8.73 billion of bonds on local ballots Tuesday, according to results reported to the Texas Comptroller’s office.

Only about $230 million of bonds were defeated, the largest of which was San Angelo Independent School District’s $153 million proposal. While the West Texas district’s voters rejected a bond issue, those in nearby Abilene ISD approved of $138 million for their district.

School districts accounted for $4.94 million, or about 58% of the proposals across the state. Many also held tax ratification elections, allowing them to increase the tax rate to cover operations.

“Thousands of residents in the Dallas, Frisco, Richardson, Pflugerville, and Alvin school districts sent an especially strong message that kids in their communities deserve quality schools -- and they’re willing to pay more to ensure it,” said Joe Smith, a former school superintendent and founder of the Web site Texasisd.com.

“The citizens in these five districts passed both bond referendums and tax ratification elections on the same day,” Smith noted. “These superintendents’ leadership will rise to the top in my admiration for doing great things for their students. That was not easy, it was awesome. They have created the opportunity to maximize state funding.”

Texas school districts have two tax rates, one for maintenance and operations and a second for debt service. State law requires that any school district needing to raise the maintenance and operations portion of its tax rate above $1.04 per $100 of assessed value seek voter approval.

In the face of declining state support, school districts have faced deficits unless they could increase the maintenance and operations tax rate. Some districts asked voters for so-called “swap-and-drop” tax rate changes. Under “swap and drop,” the tax rate for debt service is lowered while the rate for maintenance and operations is increased, effectively keeping overall taxes level.

With Democrats gaining seats in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, Smith said that supporters of school districts should keep the pressure on lawmakers to find a solution to funding problems in the 2019 session that begins in January.

The largest proposal on ballots statewide came from Fort Bend Independent School District in suburban Houston, where voters approved $992.6 million to finance three new elementary schools, a high school, to rebuild and expand several elementary schools and design a new middle school. District officials plan to spend $403.4 million on new construction and $396.5 million to upgrade, repair and renovate several middle and high schools.

Cities sought $1.53 billion, led by Austin’s $925 million, all of which were approved. All of the $1.6 billion of bond requests from counties were approved, led by Tarrant County’s $800 million proposal. One community college district, College of the Mainland in Galveston County, won passage of its $162.5 million proposal.

In Austin, voters not only approved all of the bonds on the ballot, including $250 million for affordable housing, but gave incumbent Mayor Steve Adler an overwhelming re-election victory. Adler had championed the record amount of bonds for affordable housing.

“This is a community that is looking directly at City Council, saying: ‘We are giving you the mandate,'” Adler said in a victory statement. “We’re giving you the authority to actually do big things on mobility and affordability in this city.’’

In growing urban areas, voters approved bonds for cities, counties and school districts whose borders overlap.

In affluent Collin County north of Dallas, voters passed $750 million for bonds for a high-speed highway project through the county as voters in Frisco ISD authorized $695 million for one of the fastest-growing school districts in the country.

In Corpus Christi, votes passed a $95.9 million city bond proposal along with $210.8 million of Corpus Christi ISD bonds.

Tarrant County’s $800 million hospital district bond will fund projects in Fort Worth and surrounding communities.

The bond, which does not require a tax increase, will fund four new regional medical centers throughout suburban Tarrant County, a new ambulatory surgery center to reduce wait times for non-emergency operations, a renovated cancer clinic and a new hospital tower at the main hospital in central Fort Worth. The top priority is to expand mental health services in the county, and the bond package will pay to triple the number of psychiatric beds from the current 96 to 298.

The bonds will be issued in multiple series over the next several years, officials said, with prices, rates and maturities of each issuance subject to the approval of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court.

Voters in the Birdville ISD in Tarrant County also approved $252.8 million of bonds, and voters in Arlington, also within the county, authorized $189.5 million.

In the Austin suburb of Pflugerville, voters passed $332 million of school bonds while also approving $21 million of city bonds. Nearby Round Rock ISD won passage of $508.4 million of bonds.

The 50 proposals on last week’s local ballots represented about $1.1 billion more than the $6.6 billion in Texas’s May 5 election and about $2.3 billion less than the record $11 billion on the November 2017 ballot.

Most of the volume came from three metro areas. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex accounted for $3.1 billion, followed by metro Austin at $2.1 billion and the Houston area at $1.7 billion.

Fort Bend ISD in the affluent western suburbs of Houston had considered asking voters for $1.5 billion in one ballot but decided chances of passage would be improved if the proposal were broken into two. The school board expects to ask voters for another large authorization in three years.

Over the past five-year reporting period, 44% of Texas’ new-money local debt issuance was used to finance educational facilities and equipment including school
buses, according to the Texas Bond Review Board. General-purpose debt, which includes public improvements, ranked second at 22%.

School districts, cities and water districts account for more than 86% of new-money and refunding transactions. Over the past five fiscal years, new-money debt issuance totaled $75.19 billion and refunding debt totaled $83.71 billion.

During that time the top three issuers of new-money volume were school districts, cities and water districts that together comprised 87% of the new-money volume and 82% of the refunding transaction volume.

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