Chamber’s hard-won support key to school bonds’ chances

Leaders of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce publicly affirmed their “full support” for the Austin school district’s $892 million bond package on Tuesday, after a messy clash at Monday night’s school board meeting.

Two trustees accused the chamber of blackmail because the chamber wouldn’t support the bond issue unless the district adopted a firm deadline for a plan to address the problem of underenrolled schools. The majority of the trustees at first softened the deadline, but the chamber’s education leadership quickly withdrew its support, prompting trustees to call a second vote and agree to the June 2014 deadline.

Monday night’s flip-flop likely caused some damage to the bond campaign, political watchers say, but it was likely the biggest resistance the district will face in passing the bond package, the largest ever attempted by a Central Texas school district. The package is larger than the last two district bonds combined.

Turnout is expected to be low for the May 11 election — the May 2010 Austin trustee election turnout was 9,463 voters, or 2.52 percent, and political consultants predict an even smaller turnout this spring. The district’s employee union and the chamber give the pro-bond crowd a wide base of support.
“The support of any community organization is paramount to getting that bond passed,” said Steve Rivas, a local political consultant.
Rivas, who supports the bond, campaigned for three of the four new trustees who were elected in November.

“It’s a difficult time to get voters to the polls traditionally,” he said, and the chamber’s support is key.

The president of the Travis County Taxpayers Union, the only group that has publicly opposed the bonds, agrees.
“The chamber has always been considered very important; that’s a no-brainer,” said Don Zimmerman. “How can we ask businesses to oppose it if they belong to the chamber?”

At Monday night’s meeting, some trustees expressed concern that they couldn’t meet the June 30, 2014, deadline to adopt a facilities master plan that will address underenrollment on some campuses. The board voted 8-1 to soften the deadline, and the chamber’s leaders announced they were withdrawing their support.

Word spread quickly, and less than two hours later, Trustee Lori Moya requested a reconsideration by the board. Three trustees — Cheryl Bradley, Gina Hinojosa and Robert Schneider — objected to calling the issue back for a new vote.
“Right now, I’m feeling strong-armed,” Bradley said. “I believe this city loves their children and will come out and vote for this bond. I don’t believe that we should let anyone, anyone, dictate how we do anything when it comes to this bond. So if they don’t want to participate, then don’t participate. But how dare you think that you can come up here and try to twist our arms with some nonsense? I just won’t stand for it.”

But in the end, the board unanimously adopted the hard deadline, a recognition that the district is relying, at least in part, on the chamber to get the bond package passed.

Rivas said the district avoided a land mine.

“To withdraw support right in the middle of the (meeting), I can’t tell you how dangerous that is for this bond election,” Rivas said. Rivas said that, while the chamber ultimately gave its support, its wavering plants seeds of doubt among some voters, who are just now forming opinions about the bond issue.
Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the educators’ labor group that represents about 3,000 members, said he believes the community wants high-quality schools and would have voted to fund them “regardless of the chamber’s demands.”

Despite being tired of putting students into “the political crossfire of special interests,” Zarifis said the group’s members will move beyond Monday’s “misstep” by the chamber’s education committee.

“The goal is still the same: to get the bond to pass so we can improve our facilities and bring jobs to the community so our kids benefit in AISD,” he said. “We will continue as we always have, to put the kids of AISD ahead of politics and gamesmanship.”

Chamber President Michael Rollins had a slightly different read of the situation.

“It’s a working relationship,” he said. “There are times there will be disagreements expressed, but, at the end of the day, everyone is working toward the same goal. In this case, it’s working to improve the education of our young people.”