Texas school may have illegally pushed vote on billion-dollar school bond, revealing common problems with how bond issues work

A Texas public school district is under investigation for what Gov. Greg Abbott calls a “likely crime” – school bond electioneering. 

School officials may have pressured Northside Independent School District employees to vote in favor of a $992 million school bond in the lead-up to Saturday’s election, in which the bond passed with 57.35% in favor.

Evidence of the alleged crime, provided by an unnamed whistleblower, was shared in the form of screenshots of messages from school and other officials in a Twitter thread by Corey DeAngelis, national research director at the American Federation for Children. The first post in the thread appeared on Saturday, and has been updated with additional information since.

The earliest message appears to have come before April 20, when a principal wrote to staff, saying, “Thank you for supporting the NISD Bond 2022. As per Dr. Woods, all employees will be expected to vote for this year’s Bond. …Only 7% of NISD employees voted during our last NISD Bond and according to our Superintendent, Dr. Woods, ‘this is unacceptable’. …

“We should all be doing our part to vote and to be advocating for our NISD students. Central Office will be monitoring campus percentages for employee voting stats in the next weeks to come and will be expecting ALL employees to vote.”

Another screenshot shows an April 20 email from the local teachers’ union to a district employee, indicating that the union was aware of electioneering complaints: “We recently received documentation from multiple campuses that indicate to us that district leadership is openly telling people how to vote in this bond, and telling employees that the district will be tracking employees’ votes.”

The union called the alleged actions of district officials “unlawful,” citing applicable Texas law.

A day later, on April 21, the superintendent appears to warn staff of budget cut implications should the bond fail: “If bond funds from School Bond 2022 are not available to us, we still have maintenance repairs and needs … To set aside millions of dollars to fix chillers and roofs would require budget cuts in our general fund.”

On the same day, a school employee announced on Twitter that he and a principal helped register 15 people to vote, “most of them students,” and that “early morning shuttles” for voting would be provided during the school day, April 27.

In another message dated April 28, after early voting had commenced, a district principal wrote, “As of today 7 out of 49 employees have voted from our campus. Please take a moment to vote this week …”

Then, in a May 2 newsletter to all staff, the superintendent wrote, “We have got to focus on increasing turnout in the bond election. … As many of you have heard in the staff presentations, we need to do much better with employee voter participation.” 

Gov. Abbott’s Twitter response to DeAngelis’ revelations came just hours after the documents were posted:

“I have spoken with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath about this. He confirms that IF these posts are verified, then it is likely a crime. The Education Commissioner [will] work with the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute this matter.”

Asked about the governor’s comment, the district released a statement to local media, calling the ordeal a “miscommunication.” 

“This miscommunication was immediately addressed by the principal’s supervisor and the principal, a veteran and well-respected leader, took corrective action,” according to a statement from Barry Perez, the district’s executive director of communications.

Over the weekend, the governor also posted to Twitter about various school board election results from Saturday:

“Conservatives won school board elections across Texas. Parents are more involved and active in school elections and school policies than ever before. No one cares more about children than their parents. The power of parents will continue to expand in Texas.”

Common problems with school bond issues

School bonds often cost in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, and they usually pass. After all, who wants to argue against a better school for kids? 

But experts say that bond issues share a few common problems that voters should be aware of.

School bond issues are often advertised as “no tax increase” proposals, which can be misleading. Such bonds typically replace expiring ones, keeping local property taxes elevated, where they would otherwise be reduced

In other words, school bonds that “don’t increase taxes” are actually keeping taxes higher than they would be with no bond at all.

School bonds tend to pass easily in elections with low voter turnout. The result of many successful bond issues is that relatively few voters effectively raise taxes (or keep them elevated) on everyone in a district. 

Ballotpedia tracked school bond approval rates across 15 states from 2010–2012, where bonds passed 69.2% of the time. In California, the state that Ballotpedia has most extensively tracked, school bonds were approved 73% of the time on average from 2008 to 2020, costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

At the same time, bond issues often appear on local ballots in elections with low voter turnout – in April or May, for example. In the case of Northside ISD, school officials made it clear that even most school employees who live in the district do not vote. And the election took place on Saturday, May 7.

Some policy experts have suggested schools prefer the low voter turnout – and plan accordingly – to increase the chances of bond passage. This is largely because those with a direct stake in the election, i.e. teachers and other school employees, tend to show up, even when they’re not illegally prodded to do so.

Schools have an incentive to provide information in favor of the bond, but not against it. 

State laws typically require schools to provide information about the bond, such as what it will cost, why it is needed and how the money will be spent. 

However, schools are prohibited from using public resources to expressly advocate for any ballot measure, including school bonds. This is the line that Northside ISD in Texas “likely” crossed, according to Gov. Abbott. 

But voters may well wonder how a school district can really provide information about a school bond issue that doesn’t at least implicitly advocate in its favor. 

The case of Northside ISD in Texas contains lessons for schools and voters, alike.