By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
The Vandegrift PTA ladder hosted a Meet the Candidates forum last week to find out where candidates stand on issues as two incumbent Leander ISD Board of Trustee members are being challenged for their seats in the May 9 election.
Voters will decide on the Place 1 seat, currently held by Lisa Mallory and being challenged by Trish Bode, both who live in Four Points, and the Place 2 seat, held by Don Hisle and being challenged by Cobby Caputo, both of Cedar Park.
Questions covered a range of topics from district debt, to Common Core curriculum, to the use of portable classrooms, to sex education materials, to whether or not teachers and administrators should be allowed to carry guns on campus.
While all four candidates agreed for the most part that guns would not be a welcome addition to LISD campuses, the conversation was marked by frequent disagreement that centered mostly around experienced incumbents versus their challengers who call for greater transparency on the board.
Three community members kept the questions going at the April 29 forum held at Grandview Hills Elementary: Lynette Gillis, Concordia University Texas Dean of Business; Sean Ziari, a financial services professional at NYLIFE SecuritiesNew York Life Securities; and Stephanie Haug, the LISD PTA council president. All are parents of LISD students, and they chose the evening’s questions from public feedback and current issues affecting Leander ISD.
Khotan Shahbazi-Harmon, director of communications and community accountability for E3 Alliance (Education Equals Economics) of Austin moderated the forum and helped to keep the candidates focused on the questions at hand.
Candidates were given 90 seconds to answer questions throughout the forum.
CABs and LISD debt
Though a range of topics were addressed, the area of discussion with the greatest impact on the district’s future centered on the complicated and widespread use of Capital Appreciation Bonds (CABs) in LISD.
These are bonds issued by private lenders that, instead of requiring an annual payment of interest, require a lump payment of interest at the end of the bond’s term, often several decades in the future.
The concern with these bonds is not only that they leave a large debt for future generations but that they are far more expensive than traditional bonds. LISD currently holds more CABs than any other district in Texas, with $1.7 billion in bonds (77 percent of district debt) to be repaid for a minimum of $3.7 billion.
According to Mallory, in the wake of steep cuts in education spending by the Texas Legislature, “(The board of trustees) did an amazing job reducing the budget. We have not done such a good job with the debt management.” Mallory said she supports a bill capping CAB lending at 25 percent of a district’s total debt. (Two legislators are hoping to ban CABs outright.)
The need for these bonds arises in fast-growing districts like LISD, often as a result of what is known as the 50 cent test, a law in Texas that caps the property taxes districts can collect to service debt at 50 cents per $100 of assessed property values.
Bode was less concerned about the use of CABs, though she did attack Mallory’s record of voting for CABs. When asked about the 50 cent test, Bode said that,“Right now I don’t see the need as a (potential) board member to vote for the 50 cent tax being relaxed. But I haven’t been privy to all the numbers my opponent and current board members are.”
Caputo, on the other hand, spoke strongly against the use of CABs. “No other school district is doing this. I refuse to believe that we’re the only school district that has this set of conditions going on.” He gave as an example Frisco ISD, which has a similar size, growth and tax base to LISD and yet has under 20 percent CABs.
Caputo suggested that increased efficiency, such as building additions to existing schools instead of entirely new schools, will be the district’s key means of managing and reducing debt going forward.
According to Caputo, the current board is not open to these kinds of solutions. “I’ve asked board members here about it. They’ve all said. ‘No, we’re not going to do that. We made decisions 15 years ago on how big our schools are going to be (and) we’re not going to deviate from that.’”
Hisle, an 18 year veteran of the LISD Board of Trustees, spoke last on the topic and was frank. “I voted for every one of the CABs when they came along,” in order to pay for rapid growth and to maintain tax rates. He did so expecting that the district would have no problem repaying that debt in the future.
He added, though, that, “If you look at why (the board) did what we did, it was because of the community” not wanting taxes to increase.
Here is a sampling of the candidates positions on topics relevant to voters.
“For High School Six, (the board) received $187 million into our construction fund… Because we used CAB financing on that, we will pay $1 billion. So there’s $600 million. In hindsight, a $60 thousand portable seems reasonable,” said Mallory.
“We don’t have any more bond authority in this district… to build any more schools, we have to come back to the voters and get your permission and get your gracious tax dollars to go build more schools. So the question is more to the community than to the board,” said Caputo.
“I’m not entirely convinced that the school districts are responsible for making sure that people don’t become pregnant. We can certainly help with that, but it’s gonna have to come from the families, the parents, the kids themselves and the culture that we live in,” Caputo said.
“I saw the (current 8th grade sex ed) program… I think overall they did a good job. But there are some things that I am concerned about as a parent. Because if we scare kids… then I don’t know how good of a job we’ve done educating our kiddos… As a parent when I watched it I felt like we were leaving some things out. And it bothered me,” Bode said.
“I’d like to see some Christian values,” said Mallory.
“Our discussion on Common Core at the board level… we don’t support it. We support the Texas TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills)… They do overlap… We are looking potentially at a resolution… that says that we don’t support Common Core. And I think that’s the right thing to do at this point,” Hisle said.
“I have seen very active Leander parents testifying at these (Common Core) hearings, and that makes a difference. But that’s not where we need to stop,” Bode said.
Election Day May 9
Issues such as tax increases and district debt affect every taxpayer living in LISD. However only 1 percent of voters in Travis County had participated in early voting as of the night of the forum.
“We have low voting turnout,” emphasized Bode repeatedly. “You need to have a voice in what your school board looks like.”
Early voting closed on May 5 and on Saturday, May 9, Election Day, voting will be held from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. Visit www.traviscountyclerk.org for polling location information.