DALLAS — In sharp contrast to November's generosity, Texas voters turned against some major school bond proposals Saturday, rejecting nearly $500 million for Lone Star Community College District near Houston and approving only half of the $892 million sought by the Austin Independent School District.
Statewide, 79 school districts sought voter approval of bonds to keep up with growing enrollments. Of those, 47 were approved, 17 failed, and results for 15 were unknown Monday morning, according to Joe Smith, a retired school superintendent who monitors elections for his Web site, www.TexasISD.com.
"This is the largest number of school districts having bond elections in several years," Smith said. "I think this says that with the continued student growth of 80,000 students per year there is built up demand for facilities and we see some of it coming to the market."
Smith said that his initial assessment as of Monday afternoon was that about 80% of the school proposals passed and that the percent of dollar value is around 70%.
"This is low because of the failure of the large propositions," he said.
Dollar volume for the bond proposals totaled more than $2.5 billion, from Austin's $892 million to $5 million for the Strawn ISD in West Texas.
Dominic Giarratani, assistant director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards, said the approval rate was close to last November's, though the dollar volume may have slipped. In November, about 71% of the bonds on the Texas ballot passed, he said.
"It doesn't look like it's too far off the general trend history," Giarratani said.
The current Texas Legislature is considering additional language on bond proposals about debt loads and other related information, but Giarratani said the need may not exist.
"When you see three out of ten of the bond issues failing, it looks to us like the voters are fairly well informed about what they consider the key issues," he said.
Rejection of the $497 million for Lone Star College District in a light turnout provided the sharpest contrast with the November elections, which shared the presidential ballot and drew extremely high turnouts.
In November, voters approved a Texas record $1.9 billion for the Houston ISD, while also authorizing $410 million for the city of Houston and $425 million for the Houston Community College System.
With 19,000 votes cast in the Lone Star district around Houston, the bond proposal fell 2,000 votes short. While Harris County voters offered a thin margin of support for the bonds, those in suburban Montgomery County north of Houston opposed the measure by 71%.
Opponents of the Lone Star bonds said the community college district failed to make its case for the large amount of debt, even though the new issue would not have resulted in a tax increase.
Officials who work for public school districts and colleges are not permitted under Texas law to promote bonds for their institutions, relying on citizens committees to make their case.
"We are not opposed to public entities' use of bonds where the requirement is clearly needed," opponents at Texas Patriots PAC, a tea party group, wrote in a statement on the Lone Star College proposal, citing "way too much uncertainty surrounding the future enrollment levels at LSCS to support a half billion dollar expansion at this time."
The Lone Star district, which serves 90,000 students at six campuses, sought the bonds to expand campuses and upgrade security, technology and other infrastructure.
Barbara Thomason, president of the Northwest Houston Chamber of Commerce and a member of the citizens committee supporting the Lone Star issue, cited an "aggressive campaign allegedly organized by tea-partiers" in Montgomery County for the issue's defeat.
"Our chamber strongly supported the bond and we like to think we have an idea of what fuels our local economy," Thomason said. "We hope Lone Star brings this to the voters again."
Ray Laughter, vice chancellor for external affairs at Lone Star, said the district has added 30,000 students in five years and that registration for fall is up sharply.
The Austin district won about half of the $892 million it requested. The defeat of two of the four bond proposals marked the first time Austin voters have rejected a school bond issue in nearly 25 years.
Voters approved Propositions 1 and 3 for $490 million combined.
"While voters did not approve all of the propositions, they did agree that all of our schools need to be maintained and well-equipped to support the quality of education in our city," said Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. "Propositions 1 and 3 will positively affect the quality of education for Austin students for many years to come."
Proposition 1 for $140.5 million will upgrade technology and finance construction of new science and technology labs. The bonds will also add new school buses and improve energy conservation.
Proposition 3 was the largest of the four at $349.1 million and will allow the district to repair and renovate all of its aging schools, including fixing leaky roofs and replacing old plumbing. The proposition includes repairs for every school in the district.
"The district will continue to work with all stakeholders to address the needs of our schools and how we pay for them," said AISD Board president Vincent Torres.
The defeated $233.9 million Proposition 2 included new schools to address overcrowding, improvements in safety and security, and improving facilities for fine arts, physical education and athletics. The proposition lost by less than 200 votes.
The failed Proposition 4 for $168.5 million included facility improvements for career and technical education, fine arts, special education, physical education and athletics, and renovations at the Ridgeview campus for an all-male school.
"Now that the election is over, the administration will work with the board and all school communities to reassess how to prioritize the district's needs and determine what is affordable for the Austin community," a district spokesman said.
In the Birdville ISD in the suburbs of Fort Worth, voters rejected $183 million of bonds for the growing district. With 12 of 14 precincts reporting, 7,329 total voters turned out with 3,183 voting in favor and 4,146 voting against the bond package.
The bond package would have eliminated more than 65 portable classrooms, consolidated two elementary schools, renovated and replaced aging roofs and provided new technology in place of outdated equipment.
"I am disappointed in the outcome of the election," said Superintendent Darrell G. Brown. "However, BISD will move forward and continue our focus on the children of the district."
While voters rejected the Lone Star College bonds, school districts in the Houston area were more fortunate.
The Clear Creek ISD won the second-largest school bond proposal of $367 million, which will include a replacement for Clear Creek High School. Voters in the Goose Creek Consolidated ISD near Baytown approved $220 million, including a new high school. Tomball ISD near Houston also won approval of $160 million of school construction bonds.
Baytown area voters also approved $40 million of bonds for the Lee College District with 72% support.
In the Panhandle city of Amarillo, about 66% of voters supported a nearly $100 million bond issue for the Amarillo ISD, even though it brought a tax increase.
"Those of us on the board are gratified the community shows support for the school district and children of Amarillo," said AISD Board president John Ben Blanchard said. "This bond will help to ensure we have the types of facilities and security we need to adequately educate our children and attract new business to Amarillo."