Lake Travis voters face two big decisions in upcoming election

LTISD promising to keep the tax rate the same in TRE, bond election

Lake Travis ISD 2017 bond. (KXAN Photo)
Lake Travis ISD 2017 bond. (KXAN Photo)

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Early voting starts next week, and in many parts of Travis County, voters are likely to come across some confusing ballot language. Lake Travis Independent School District officials say that’s a big concern for them, as the district has two major items up for a vote Nov. 7.

The district is asking voters to approve a $253 million bond package. Taxpayers will also be asked to vote in the district’s Tax Ratification Election, or TRE.

School bond

District leaders say the bond is needed to build new schools in order to keep up with the rapid growth packing campuses. More than $109 million of the quarter-of-a-billion-dollar package would go toward building a new middle school off of Vail Divide in Bee Cave and a new elementary school in the Rough Hollow area of Lakeway.

The bond also includes money to buy land for future schools, improve existing schools, add new technology to campuses and buy 40 new school buses with seat belts, along with retrofitting all older buses with seat belts.

District officials say this bond is different from most because it can be passed without raising the tax rate.

“Normally, when you go out and asLake Travis High Schoolk voters to have a successful bond election, you’re going up in your tax rate,” said Johnny Hill, LTISD’s assistant superintendent of finances, business and auxiliary services. “We’re able to do $253 million without going up at all.”

Hill says the district has been able to pay down debt from previous bonds early, thanks to growth in the area. That gives the district the ability to take on more bond debt without raising current tax rates.

Parents like Karen Mechura are working to educate voters through ads and social media about how the bond works, because of the concern that some will think the bond is too good to be true.

“Really, I just tell people: get educated,” Mechura said, “because once you learn the facts, it is just a no-brainer.”

Mechura says as the district’s population grows, so do her son’s and daughter’s class sizes. She says the two new schools that would be built with money from the bond are desperately needed.

“We need more space,” she said. “We need the kids to be able to go to smaller schools and really be able to have that focus and that attention on them.”

Despite how much the district may need the bond, however, opponents say they feel it shouldn’t pass.

“They may have the best intentions on their spending, they may have the greatest needs, they may have the greatest goals, but if they’re not honest with the public, we shouldn’t reward them with any bond money,” said Roger Falk, consulting analyst with the Travis County Taxpayers Union.

Falk says he feels the district is misleading people by saying the tax rate won’t change, because property owners may interpret that as a promise that their taxes won’t increase.

“They’re only telling you the interest rate’s not going to change,” Falk said. “You need to know the payment.”

Superintendent Brad Lancaster argues he’s been open with voters, hosting public meetings and presentations about the bond, and explaining that even if the district doesn’t raise its tax rate, voters will undoubtedly pay.

“Your bill’s going to go up because your home value’s going to go up,” Dr. Lancaster said. “But if you don’t like construction, you don’t like people moving to town — I don’t know how else to say it. You’re in the wrong place.”

Dr. Lancaster added, “When you choose to live in one of the fastest-growing communities in the state, it’s going to cost money. The good news in Lake Travis is the bond election and our tax ratification election will not, by themselves, change your tax rate or your tax bill.”

Tax Ratification Election

School officials have come up with a creative way to move money around within the district’s budget and create a couple of million dollars in extra funding without raising the local tax rate. However, the district worries people who don’t understand its Tax Ratification Election could keep it from passing.

Because the plan is so complicated, the district created a video to help voters understand.

The district says it would be able to pull in an extra $2.1 million a year from the state, simply by tweaking the way it collects taxes.

District officials also promise doing so would not affect the tax rate. However, Hill says it may appear as though the tax rate would increase when voters head to the polls.

“The ballot language, to me, it’s extremely confusing,” Hill said.

Voters will be asked to raise their tax rate by 2 cents, with the money going to maintenance and operations. What voters won’t see on the ballot is how the district plans to offset the increase.

“The November 7th election will automatically have a rollback effect if the TRE is ratified successfully,” Hill said.

The 2 cent increase to the district’s maintenance and operations tax makes Lake Travis ISD eligible for more state funding. In return, the school board has already passed a resolution to cut 2 cents from the district’s interest and sinking tax if the TRE passes, keeping the overall tax rate the same.

If voters don’t approve the TRE, however, the district won’t drop those two pennies out of the other fund, meaning the tax rate won’t change either way.

“The only difference is the local district would not be able to utilize that $2.1 million of state monies,” Hill said.

Hill adds that the $2.1 million increase would nearly make up for the amount of money the district has lost from the state in recent years. None of the maintenance and operations revenue from the 2 cent raise would be subject to state recapturing, or “the Robin Hood plan.”

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