Amid resident concerns, Richardson ISD trustees defend proposed tax rate increase

Richardson ISD trustees on Aug. 20 solidified the district's intent to pursue an increased operating tax rate by calling for a tax election Nov. 6.

Originally scheduled for September, on Aug. 6 trustees voted to move the election to November based on a desire to adopt a tax rate that reflects the certified appraisal role received in late July as well as a need to better inform the public of the district's fiscal position.

The proposed tax rate would increase the maintenance and operations portion from $1.04 to $1.17 per $100 property valuation, the maximum allowed by the state. A total tax rate of $1.52 also includes 35 cents to fund the district's debt services.

By state law any operating tax rate set above $1.04 requires voter approval. The board voted 6-1 on both adopting a new tax rate and calling for a Nov. 6 election. Trustee Eron Linn dissented on both counts, citing his belief that the district should pursue an increase of less than $1.17.

"I fully support [Superintendent] Dr. [Jeannie] Stone and the 2018-19 budget—we just disagree on the best way to pay for it," he said.

Prior to the votes members of the public had a chance to comment on the increase.

Of the five taxpayers who spoke, four disapproved of the increase. Murphy McNutt, a resident of The Reservation neighborhood, said the district is leveraging teacher salaries as a bargaining chip in attempt to garner more yes votes.

"In my opinion this is about misplacing priorities and mismanaging resources," she said. "At what point will RISD stop holding teacher salaries hostage and pitting taxpayers against teachers?"

In recent years RISD has fallen behind its neighboring districts in offering competitive teacher salaries. According to the district, the 2017-18 average base salary for a teacher in RISD was $54,736, compared to Plano and Dallas ISD's averages of $57,156 and $56,788, respectively.

Approval of the tax election would mean a $305 increase on the tax bill for the average Richardson home valued at $288,794. Lake Highlands resident Roger Pryor said homes in this price range are rare in Richardson.

"It's going to cost [my neighbors] a fortune," he said. "The average home that [Chief Financial Officer David] Pate mentioned isn't in my neighborhood."

State funding has declined by $16.1 million since 2013 and is projected to decrease by another $41.8 million over the next five years, according to the district. Trustee Kim Caston said in light of the state's inability to come to a resolution in the last legislative session, she has no reason to believe it will resolve school finance woes any time soon.

"I wish I was more confident in the state Legislature to fix school finance, but that is a hope with no fact-based evidence to support it ... I hope I am proven wrong," she said.

In absence of state support the district should be able to decide for itself how money is spent, said White Rock Elementary School parent Mark Holmes.

"We have to max out the [maintenance and operations] rate to do what we have to do in the district," he said. "As a local taxpayer and father, I want to give this board and every other board the financial flexibility to do the enhancement programs the way they want to do them."

If the state is able to come to a resolution in its spring 2019 legislative session, trustee Katie Patterson said she would be "one of the first" to consider a lesser tax rate.

"Just because we increase the rate to $1.17 doesn't mean it stays there, but right now it is what we desperately need," she said.
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