A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
A Board Member’s View of One District’s TRE Troubles
by Sarah Winkler
School board members are very familiar with bond and trustee lections. After serving 12-plus years on the Alief ISD Board, I
consider myself to be an election veteran.
When it became apparent that my district
would need to hold a tax ratification
election (TRE) to generate adequate funds
to meet the needs of our students, I
thought the process would be similar to
our previous bond referendums. I
couldn’t have been more wrong.
Fortunately, our election was successful despite organized opposition. My goal
is to help trustees prepare for this process
by describing the challenges, successes,
and pitfalls Alief ISD encountered in
Our district has always formed
committees to evaluate capital projects
prior to holding bond elections, and we
used this same process for our TRE. The
committee reviewed correspondence,
videos, and presentations that explained
the need for a maintenance and operations (M&O) tax increase and provided
valuable feedback. Administrators,
trustees, and committee members gave
presentations at school open houses and
The district printed brochures,
included TRE information in community
and employee newsletters and on our
Web site, and informed the media. The
information highlighted student successes
and gains in academic achievement
scores, emphasizing that this tax increase
would fund pay raises needed to attract
and retain highly qualified teachers. We
also acknowledged our challenges and
outlined the proactive programs put in
place to address these issues. As the
campaign evolved, it was apparent that
outlining successes and challenges helped
bolster our credibility with the public.
Explaining the Situation
Explaining House Bill 1 was difficult.
Like many of the districts holding TREs,
Alief ISD’s calculated target revenue is low.
To explain our financial situation, we
created charts comparing area districts’
target revenue to ours, lists of uncontrolled costs, and graphs showing historical and projected tax rates.
Despite our explanations, residents
still struggled to understand why Alief
ISD’s calculated target revenue is so low.
This is not surprising since funding per
pupil varies widely from district to district
seemingly for no reason. Fortunately,
many taxpayers cared about equity and
wanted our students to have the same
resources available in neighboring
Our public wanted to be reassured
that their taxes were being spent efficiently and effectively. Our constituents
responded to graphs showing area
districts’ expenditures per pupil. Alief ISD
spends a large percentage of its expenditures on instruction and a very small
percentage on central administration.
The information provided outlined the
consequences of an unsuccessful election.
Staff salaries would be frozen and programs eliminated. Specific reductions
were not listed since our staff was already
anxious about possible cuts. Without the
tax increase, the district would not have
had sufficient funds available to meet the
fall payroll for the 2010-11 school year.
Unfortunately, we quickly discovered
that this information also elicited negative
responses and helped foster opposition to
the election. Residents questioned why the
district committed to salary increases and
adopted a budget when taxpayer approval
was needed to support this spending.
Most constituents were unaware that a
large percentage of the budget is deter-
mined in the spring when the board
approves raises and staffing.
Did ‘Yes’ Mean ‘No’?
As the district communicated with the
public, we realized constituents were not
convinced a tax increase was our only
option for raising the needed funds. Our
stadium and administration building were
being renovated at the time the TRE was
called. Many residents believed the
renovation money could be used for
operating expenses. Suspicion continued
despite efforts to inform them that these
construction projects were approved by
voters in the last bond election, and bond
money could not be used for M&O
Explaining the school funding system
was our biggest challenge. As property
values rise, homeowners’ tax bills go up. It
is very difficult to explain that property
value increases are of no benefit to the
district since the state reduces our funding
dollar for dollar.
Even the ballot language was problem-
atic. Voters were confused about the
meaning of a rollback election. Did a “yes”
vote ratify the proposed tax increase, or
March 2009 • Texas Lone Star • 11 March 2009 • Texas Lone Star • 11