RISD trustees send property tax increase to voters

Richardson ISD trustees voted Wednesday to send a tax rate hike to voters in September, but comments at the public hearing made it clear that legislators in Austin are the true villains for taxpayers unhappy at paying larger bills and trustees reluctant to make them do it.

The vote was not unanimous. Trustee Eron Linn preferred a more moderate jump in the Maintenance and Operations (M&O) Tax from $1.04 to $1.10. RISD will instead move to the cap of $1.17.

“As board members, all of us have advocated in Austin on behalf of our students, teachers and schools to the point of joining in the most recent school finance lawsuit, but our legislators have made it clear that we are on our own,” said Trustee Kim Caston. “We must protect the classroom.”

Mark Holmes, a Lake Highlands resident who spoke in support of the tax increase, agreed.

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“It’s time for this district and every other district to go to the M and O cap, and then we can all drive down to Austin in January and tell our legislators to get back to work and fix school funding.”

Others, though, weren’t convinced.

“We’ve gone nuts on this, folks,” stressed physics teacher Euan Blackman, who said taxes on his home have doubled over the past 5 years from $1,800 to $3,700. “We’ve put sports complexes above academics. I know money’s tough – I’m a teacher.”

Most surprising, though, was the “no” vote from Trustee Eron Linn, who urged the board to adopt a more modest rate jump.

“It’s pretty clear to me that the $1.10 rate allows the district to sustain and grow programs in a fiscally responsible way. We’ve given teacher raises in the past at lower tax rates, and I’m supremely confident that we could still give our teachers and staff the raises they deserve at $1.10.”

Linn then turned his attention to Austin.

“The state legislature has failed in its responsibility, and now taxpayers have to bail them out so we can continue to educate our 39,000 kids and pay our teachers what they deserve,” said Linn. “Their lack of action depicts a horribly broken and arcane Robin Hood school finance system that’s extremely negligent to the children of this state.”

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“This district has more kids than ever, yet the state legislature sends our tax dollars away,” continued Linn. “This is total insanity. It is borderline criminal for the state legislature to disguise this mess as actual public policy.”

Though RISD school board votes other than 7-0 are rare – Justin Bono voted against the group once in 2015 – trustees were united in their need for additional funding and their disdain for Austin.

“At one point in time the State of Texas paid more than a third the cost of educating RISD students – 36 percent to be exact,” explained Trustee Jean Bono. “Next year they will pay less than a quarter of the cost, and they will pay only 18% in the 2019-20 school year.”

“It is imperative that we have the financial resources to hire and retain top notch teachers for our students,” said Trustee Karen Clardy, retired after 25 years at Lake Highlands High School. “We are losing experienced teachers and staff to other school districts that can offer more pay and incentives.”

After reducing expenses in the budget by $4 million and adopting a deficit budget last year to incentivize the legislature to provide additional funding, “we’ve found ourselves needing to use the last tool in the toolbox, and that is to require a tax increase,” said Board President Justin Bono. “I don’t believe any of our parents and most of our community wants to see our schools in a situation that a sustained $1.04 tax rate would leave us in.”

Unlike a bond election where the district asks voters in advance for permission, explained RISD Chief Financial Officer David Pate, the law in tax ratification elections calls for the board to adopt the tax rate and related budget, then go to voters.

Raising the M&O rate from $1.04 to $1.17 will raise the overall tax rate from $1.39 to $1.52 and increase this year’s tax bill on the average $281,223 home 25 percent or $695 from $2,773 to $3,467. New revenue from RISD taxpayers is expected to be $30 million, but the state will recapture $5.9 million of that and send it to other districts. The election will be held Sept. 4.

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