One School District Says No to Higher Property Taxes

After public resistance from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Empower Texans, an Austin-based conservative activist group, voters in a suburban Fort Worth school district turned down a 13-cent local tax hike over the weekend.

In May, Keller ISD school board members proposed a property tax increase that school officials said would raise about $16 million in revenue to cover revenue being cut by the state. On Saturday, it failed, 56 percent to 44 percent, with more than 14,000 residents casting votes, according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram

Within the community, opposition centered on the district's 9 percent increase in spending last year and its high taxes (tied to facilities bonds) relative to neighboring districts. Supporters argued that the tax increase was needed to protect classroom instruction, and pointed to the district's excellent FAST (Financial Allocation Study for Texas) efficiency rating with the comptroller's office.

Dewhurst wrote a June 10 Letter to the Editor in the Star Telegram saying the district didn't need the increase to keep teachers in the classroom. 

Michael Quinn Sullivan, the president of Empower Texans, said he took note of the election when news of what he called the district's "strong arm bully tactics" reached him, specifically, information about how many teachers would be fired if the tax increase did not go through.

 

"That's putting a knife to every kid's teacher's throat, you know, 'Hand me your wallet,'" he said.

He said his group had not done any more to raise awareness about the election beyond writing about it on its website — and did not broadly oppose local property tax increases to raise revenue for schools. 

"It's like anything, you have to look individually at each issue, if a school district is operating very efficiently, working well, and they locally need additional revenues, then they need to make that case," Sullivan said.  

A spokesman for Keller ISD said he could not comment on the effect of outside groups in the election. He also said that the district had not talked with Dewhurst about his opposition. 

The fate of the Keller tax increase is an early indication of whether voters will pay more locally to preserve programs and jobs at schools with slashed state spending, but it doesn't completely answer the question. The success of bids to raise local taxes (most of them fail) is heavily dependent on community-specific factors like voters' perception of district management. But the defeat in Keller signals the continued influence of a statewide political agenda driven by fiscal conservatives, and comes as voters there — where more than 200 employees have already been laid off and officials say cuts in fine arts, athletics, and the elimination of regular bus transportation are on the way — have already begun to see the results of the Legislature's budget cuts.

Most school boards will make decisions about tax rate elections when they finalize their budgets in July and August. 

 

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