OUR TURN: MFISD needs to educate the public on tax vote

Rob O’Connor has a lot of explaining to do.

And that’s not a bad thing, if the Marble Falls Independent School District superintendent wants the public to support his proposed “tax shift,” which could go to voters in late August provided the School Board approves it first.

The most important thing to remember, O’Connor says, is this is not a tax increase. Patrons’ school taxes actually will go down.

The last tax vote before MFISD voters was November 2006. Many will remember the now-famous  Mustang Stadium bond issue narrowly passed. And then voters woke up with sticker shock as the $10 million price tag kept climbing.

Though that was a bond referendum and this is a tax vote, O’Connor has to remember this community is notoriously averse to tax issues unless a good argument can be made for putting the issue on the ballot.

That will be O’Connor’s challenge. However, he first has to sell the tax issue to the School Board sometime this month so that voters can go to the polls Aug. 25.

Conspiracy theorists will argue O’Connor is trying to rush the issue, but the actual truth is that by law, MFISD must have a budget in place before Sept. 1.

Here’s how the tax switch works: It calls for a penny increase in the maintenance-and-operations fund while lowering the overall tax rate by a penny — a savings to the taxpayer.

The total tax rate is $1.29 per $100 property valuation and O’Connor wants to drop it to $1.28 for next year. He wants to shift one penny from the Interest and Sinking (debt service) rate to the maintenance and operation while giving one penny back to the voters.

Which is why he’s calling it a tax shift.

The catch is voters must OK increasing the M&O rate from $1.04 to $1.0533 during a special election.

Under state law if a school district wants to raise its M&O rate above a mandated $1.04 cap, it must seek voter approval.

This scenario works because the district’s debt payments are coming down, allowing MFISD to reduce that rate just over 2 cents with one penny going to M&O and the other to the taxpayers.

Under this plan, the debt-service or I&S rate slips from a quarter to 22.67 cents.

On paper, that means voters must approve an M&O tax rate increase to get an overall decrease, but that’s what will happen.

The additional 1.33 cents tacked onto the M&O portion of the rate will generate  $400,000 for district coffers. O’Connor said that money will eliminate a shortfall of the same amount in the 2012-2013 fiscal year budget.

In other words, MFISD can have a balanced budget for 2012-2013. Without the penny shift, more cuts are coming.

The superintendent has made no secret that MFISD, just like the neighboring Burnet Consolidated Independent School, is facing serious budget issues. The district has already reduced staff through attrition and consolidation by 90 slots — personnel make up about 80 percent of the budget.

And unless there’s some kind of relief, O’Connor warns that cherished extracurricular programs could someday be history.

Put the blame on the Legislature, which in 2011 cut school funding by $4 billion to balance the state budget. Now state lawmakers are making more noises about further cuts in 2013 when they next convene.

Already Gov. Rick Perry has instructed state agencies to find an additional 10 percent in cutbacks to their budgets.

This does not bode well for school finance, which already is a mess.

Whether or not you support O’Connor’s tax switch, let the School Board know how you feel. Explore the issues, learn more; try to catch O’Connor at a School Board meeting, school function or one of his talks to community groups as he starts stumping to drum up support for the measure.

Ultimately it’s up to the voters to decide, but they should have all the facts before making any decision that affects the future of Marble Falls-area schoolchildren.

 

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