By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Craig Malisow
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Just two years ago, voters soundly rejected a $390 million bond proposal from the Houston Independent School District, with potential supporters being understandably unmoved by an inept, underfunded, anemic campaign that succeeded only in stirring up the area's die-hard tax-hike opponents.
On November 3, district officials are coming back to the voters with a significantly higher proposal -- $678 million to build ten schools and make major repairs at 92 others, the largest-ever school-bond vote in Houston -- but the people running the campaign are brimming with confidence.
It's hard to see why they shouldn't be. The campaign is flush with cash, just about every local significant political consultant is on board, the city's conservative radio talk shows are too obsessed with Bill-Clinton-as-Antichrist to pay attention, and no significant organized opposition has emerged. Even some arguably rosy-scenario economic forecasting, which has let the district promise to fund the new proposal with a tax hike significantly less that what they said was needed to finance the earlier, smaller package, hasn't drawn much fire.
So is the usually maligned Houston school district about to pass its first bond proposal in almost ten years?
At campaign headquarters, optimism abounds. Polls show so much support for the proposition that the main concern is reminding straight-ticket voters to go to the last page of the ballot and cast their vote before leaving the booth.
"The dynamic is just so completely different from the last time, it doesn't seem like the same issue," says campaign manager Maryann Young. "The sentiment seems strong, and the energy feels good."
Still, if anyone could mess up a shoo-in bond election, it's HISD. The muddled 1996 effort ended up being a primer on how not to win a bond campaign.
HISD Superintendent Rod Paige waited until the last moment before deciding to go ahead with the vote, after feeling pressure from westside residents complaining about overcrowding. The vote was all alone on the ballot in a special election in May 1996; HISD concentrated its efforts on parents of students, largely ignoring the majority of the district's voters. Turnout was less than 10 percent, and 53 percent of the voters rejected the proposal.
HISD says it has learned its lesson from the debacle. Paige has been assiduously preparing the ground for the current package, meeting with groups across the city. The town's heavy financial hitters have been tapped; the campaign expects to spend more than $600,000, mostly on TV ads. The previous campaign spent only about a third of that.
"There was a decision by business leaders that it was time to do it right," says Young, a veteran of former controller George Greanias's office. "Unquestionably, we've gone and hired the people who know how to get the job done. They clearly didn't want to waste their time anymore."
Among the well-known consultants on board are Dave Walden, Marc Campos, Dan McClung and George Strong, all working the constituencies they know best. Those writing big checks include Enron Corporation, which donated $50,000 on the most recent campaign report; NFL hopeful Bob McNair, who gave $25,000; and law firms like Vinson & Elkins, Bracewell & Patterson, and Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton, all of whom have recycled, to the tune of $10,000 each, the impressive billings they receive from local governments.
HISD also reportedly plans to hire Kenny Calloway, the master of getting out the vote in the city's black precincts, although his firm is not listed as having received any money in the most recent campaign report.
All of this is pretty frustrating, of course, to tax gadfly Barry Klein, who garnered a lot of the credit (or blame) for defeating the 1996 proposal.
"Obviously, the other side is going to be spending a lot more money getting their supporters out," says Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association. "There were no TV ads last time.... They're finding the people who didn't vote last time and making sure they vote this time, and that's what I would be doing if I were them."
In 1996, Klein made effective use of a pending performance audit on HISD being done by state Comptroller John Sharp. "The fact that the audit was coming up last time made it a lot easier to argue to people that they should wait and see what it said before voting to give the district more money," he says.
Now, he's forced to argue that HISD's perennial problems don't warrant the public's confidence, and that the district is overestimating future growth in the tax base to keep its projected tax increase small.
Those arguments don't seem to be gaining any traction. The district flaunts improved test scores, even as doubts remain about its methodology in earning them; it also points to Sharp's approval of its efforts to address concerns he raised in his audit.
And district spokesman Terry Abbott says the district's growth estimates are derived "from the same general guiding principles all school districts use. I think Barry's just tossing out anything he can at this point to stop the bond election.... He's a professional opponent."
HISD's management troubles are also cited by the only other notable opponent to crop up, Christian Right activist Dr. Steven Hotze. His group, Conservative Republicans of Harris County, has urged a "no" bond vote in its mail-outs listing every race on the ballot.
"HISD's track record of fiscal mismanagement, burgeoning bureaucratic staffing [and] skyrocketing costs ... make it unworthy of hundreds of millions of dollars of additional debt," the flier states. "Only after they put the education of our children first, return to basics in the classroom ... and make excellence a reality instead of a broken promise, will we support additional funding."
(Elsewhere in the flier, Hotze's group points out that the Democratic Party stands "for government monopoly in education" and "for teaching homosexuality as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.")
Bond campaign officials were initially taken by surprise by the Hotze mail-out, but they responded October 22 by trotting out a host of Republican officials to endorse the bond proposal. Harris County GOP Chairman Gary Polland, County Judge Bob Eckels and former mayoral candidate Rob Mosbacher all gave their blessing at the event.
For now, bond supporters are hoping their luck holds and are waiting anxiously for Election Day. "There's always unknown sharks that are lurking about out there," says Young, "but honestly, I can't remember such a consensus on an issue like this. The last two things, the stadium and the affirmative-action vote, were much more divided than this."
The reasons for supporters to be confident -- a healthy economy, a demonstrable need for new facilities, a recent string of similar bond victories by school districts across the country -- also provide reasons for darker thoughts.
For if HISD can't pass a bond election in this atmosphere, with this level of financial and political support, with this lack of opposition, it would be a fiasco that likely would force a massive rethinking and restructuring of the administration. And it would make any future administrations extremely gun-shy about going before voters with such a large package again, even as classrooms remained packed and long-pending repairs were put off.
E-mail Richard Connelly at email@example.com.