by Greg Harrison
A group of concerned taxpayers gathered earlier this morning to discuss their opposition to a misleading – and allegedly illegal – corporate-funded bond campaign that threatens to skyrocket taxpayers’ debt load and force them to fund unnecessary projects.
Round Rock ISD is asking voters to authorize $572.1 million in added debt amongst three ballot propositions. The items contained in the propositions include three new schools, a new athletic facility, and various projects around the district for existing facilities.
Unsurprisingly, RRISD officials are also advertising a misleading “repayment cost” in order to downplay the actual impact of the debt. They are advertising the $572.1 million in additional debt (closer to $950 million with interest) as costing the average homeowner only $2.23 per month – when basic calculations put that figure closer to twelve times that amount.
Round Rock Parents and Taxpayers – a group organized against the bond and the district’s misleading tactics – isn’t having it.
“What concerned me most was how dishonest they were about the cost,” said Patrick McGuinness, one of the founders of RRPT. “They represented the cost at $2.23 a month. That doesn’t even cover a fraction of the debt service – the actual cost – to homeowners. It is actually closer to $348 per year.”
“It’s like telling voters to look at the tip of an iceberg and ignore what’s below the surface,” said David G. Schmidt, one of the other activists who spoke against the propositions. “You are insulting our intelligence.”
It’s a game that bureaucrats all over the state play when it comes to selling debt. They obfuscate the real cost of a debt package by playing a misleading shell-game and using non-specific terms such as tax “impact” or “change.” Using these kinds of terms, along with convenient timing around the simultaneous repayment of previous debt, allows them to disguise the actual, total cost of the proposed debt.
In layman’s terms, it’s a lot like paying off a mortgage around the same time a homeowner takes on a car payment for a similar same amount. The impact on monthly expenditures is negligible – but that doesn’t mean the car is free.
Worse yet, RRPT also argues that the pro-bond side has engaged in unethical and illegal tactics in selling the bond by using taxpayer-funded district resources to disseminate pro-bond messaging.
“Round Rock ISD has used district resources, teacher and staff time, as well as taxpayer funds to communicate to parents and teachers about the $572 million bond propositions with an intent to influence them on this package,” said McGuinness. “In the process, they have engaged in actions that appear to violate Texas legal prohibitions on using public funds for electoral advocacy.”
For starters, the administration had principals send emails to parents in the district touting the projects to be completed with the bond, using the same misleading $2.23/month repayment figure.
“It’s dishonest, it’s gimmicky marketing, and it’s advocacy,” said McGuinness. “When you use district funds to advocate, it’s illegal.”
In addition, teachers and other staff were forced to attend mandatory ‘bond election sessions’ on district work time. “Again, the $2.23 figure was presented, and again, the intention was advocacy,” claimed McGuinness.
Even more alarming, some teachers have reported being told by senior officials that their raises were dependent on the bond – a statutorily untrue scare tactic, as salaries are not funded with debt service.
Lastly, the pro-bond PAC ‘Classrooms for Kids’ – which gets a staggering 93 percent of its financial resources from contractors and debt financiers – looks to have obtained teacher email addresses for the purpose of mass-emailing their pro-bond political ads to teachers.
“We are pursuing how these were obtained to see if this, too, crossed a line,” said McGuinness.
The Texas Election Code prohibits the use of public school funds for political advocacy. “Statements that are ‘sufficiently substantial and important as to be likely to influence a voter’ or ‘contain information that an employee knows is false’ are impermissible,” said McGuinness in closing. “District communications, we believe, have included such kinds of statements… We are pursuing an opinion from the Attorney General on this matter and will consider appropriate legal actions to rectify any violations.”
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