Voters in Round Rock ISD will decide May 6 whether the district can increase its tax rate to pay for $572.09 million in bonds to fund new school construction as well as a plethora of improvements and upgrades in existing schools.
“This is a historic time in the district,” RRISD Superintendent Steve Flores said Feb. 16, just before the district’s board of trustees voted 7-0 to call the election. “We have put a lot of thought [into the proposal], and this board has done its due diligence.”
The bond election is split into three separate ballot propositions: One emphasizes growth, renewal and safety; a second focuses on innovation and classroom expansion; and a third deals with fine arts and athletics projects.
If voters approve all three, property tax payments will increase by $2.23 per month—or $26.74 per year—for an average RRISD home valued at $290,000, according to the district.
Early voting is April 24-29 and May 1-2.
Focus on growth
RRISD board President Diane Cox said in an interview that the May bond package is one of the most unique bond proposals to be sent to voters during her tenure. Cox is the longest-serving active RRISD trustee, having been first elected in 2005.
She said the bond addresses anticipated growth in RRISD’s student enrollment over the next decade and also manages existing growth-related issues.
Cox points to new construction projects—including proposals to add an elementary school in northeast Round Rock and a new high school on Pearson Ranch Road in Austin—as well as plans to use bonds to fund portable classroom replacements at Forest Creek and Brushy Creek elementary schools as examples of the bond package’s dual priorities.
“We are able to address our growth moving forward but also address some issues with growth that have been kind of long-standing that we finally realized an opportunity to go back and to look at,” Cox said.
In RRISD’s most recent bond election in 2014, voters approved $299 million toward improvements at McNeil and Westwood high schools as well as new auditoriums at Cedar Ridge and Stony Point high schools.
The 2014 bond package also paid for Joe Lee Johnson Elementary School and the future Pearson Ranch Middle School, which is scheduled to open in August.
RRISD spokesperson Corey Ryan said Proposition 1 includes the highest-priority projects, including the district’s proposed sixth high school on Pearson Ranch Road in Austin. At $150 million, the school is the bond package’s big-ticket item.
It would be designed to support up to 2,600 students and could open by the 2019-20 school year, according to RRISD.
Ryan said the new high school would help alleviate overcrowding at Round Rock High School, which had 3,134 students enrolled during the 2015-16 school year. Without overcrowding relief, the district’s projections show Round Rock High School’s student enrollment increasing to nearly 4,000 by 2021.
RRISD’s total student headcount was 47,645 in 2015-16 and is projected to approach 52,000 within the next decade, according to the district. Schools have seen rapid enrollment growth since the early 1990s, and today RRISD enrolls between 300 and 500 new students each year.
Other bond projects in the Northwest Austin area include $30 million in Proposition 1 for Phase 2 of McNeil High School’s master plan, which would expand the school’s cafeteria as well as classrooms for career and technical education and other disciplines.
Proposition 1 also includes $22 million for Phase 4 of Westwood High School’s master plan, which would include renovation and expansion of art rooms, the construction of a new lecture hall and 26 new classrooms. Additionally, $3 million is included in Proposition 3 for design of a new auditorium at Westwood.
The price tag
The district’s proposal would gradually increase RRISD’s tax rate over the next five years from $1.3325 to $1.3426 per $100 of property valuation as bonds are sold to fund projects. The increase would come from the debt service portion of the district’s tax rate, which would increase from $0.2925 to $0.3026. RRISD taxpayers’ monthly bills would increase by an average of $0.84, or by $10.10 annually, for every $100,000 in home value, according to RRISD.
“This process was just so thoroughly vetted,” Ryan said. “When we look at the totality of this bond, we’re looking at an impact of just over two dollars per month for the average taxpayer. … I think that this bond was done mindfully and was done in a way that was purposeful for a district of our size that has seen the growth that we’ve seen.”
Political groups have taken sides on the bond package ahead of the May election.
The Travis County Taxpayers Union, led by former Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman, opposes the bond, arguing the package is excessive and wasteful and questioning the full effect on tax bills. TCTU was joined by a recently formed group called Round Rock Parents and Taxpayers Association, which also opposes the bond, during a media event April 12 that drew opponents and supporters.
“The kids are our future. We absolutely want them to have the best education they possibly can have, but this is a very heavy lift for the public,” said Roger Falk of the TCTU, at the event.
Meanwhile, former RRISD trustee Catherine Hanna and Ron Buffum, who led a citizen bond committee that provided input on the bond package, are heading up a special-purpose political action committee called Classrooms for Kids in favor of the bond, which is backed financially by the pro-bond Round Rock Chamber.