Austin ISD, the largest government-run school district in Central Texas, has just proposed a big tax increase despite shrinking enrollment and overstuffed coffers brimming with federal aid. The move, which comes at a time when area food banks are “still seeing high demand,” has left many Austinites understandably frustrated.
On Monday, the Austin American-Statesman reported that “Homeowners in the Austin school district could see their taxes go up by an average of almost $300 under the district’s new proposed tax rate.” That hike would come on top of the almost $9,000 in property taxes paid right now by area residents, more than half of which is directly on account of Austin ISD. In 2015, the average Travis County homeowner’s property tax bill totaled just $5,471.
One reason why the district’s suggested tax increase is surprising is that school officials are teaching fewer and fewer students.
In June, KXAN reported that: “Over the last five years, enrollment in in the Austin Independent School District has decreased,” falling from 83,270 in the 2016-17 school year to 75,075 in the 2020-21 school year. For the current 2021-22 school year, district officials were hoping to rebound to 77,000 students but are “roughly 3,000 students below its target, despite recent efforts to boost enrollment through increased community outreach.”
With enrollment in freefall, one might guess that Austin ISD’s tax burden would chart a similar course downward—or at least level off. But unfortunately for taxpayers, the district’s tax burden is stuck on skyrocket. Consider that from 2015 to 2020, its property tax levy grew by more than 50%, according to data from the Texas Comptroller’s office.
Another curious thing about the district’s planned tax hike is that officials are already inundated with federal funds.
In April, Community Impact reported that Austin ISD would receive $156 million in COVID-related monies, a large portion of which had vague or unspecified uses. One official, when asked about its use, said she anticipated “future spending on professional development, mental health services, and possible summer programs…” In other words, more nebulous government spending on programs with no measurable benefit to students or taxpayers.
There’s no reason why Austin ISD should raise taxes today. Homeowners are struggling. Students are fleeing. And their coffers are full.
District officials should rethink this one.