Fort Worth ISD bond vote is crucial

Posted Saturday, Aug. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The cost of the bond proposal Fort Worth school district trustees are putting together for a Nov. 5 election is staggeringly big, as much as $785 million.

That figure might go down as trustees scrub through the list of proposed projects, but the end product still is likely to be big enough to choke on.

It will easily dwarf the $292 million bond program city officials are assembling for a vote next May. And in the minds of many voters, the two elections probably will meld together as somewhere near $1 billion in new taxpayer obligations.

Those reactions are understandable, but the responsible thing for residents to do is to examine the elements of each package individually, to hear from city and school officials what they are trying to do to meet what they see as real needs and to cast votes based on reason rather than emotion.

The city and the school district are approaching these two elections differently. City officials are holding numerous neighborhood meetings, seeking feedback on a preliminary list of projects; the school district hired a battery of professional consultants who have been examining current facilities and assessing the district’s needs since November.

Is one process better than the other? No, they have different objectives based on the different missions of the city and school district.

The City Council and its top staff members are focused mainly on basic infrastructure like roads, with other needs like libraries and parks added in.

The school board and its administrators are charged with a mission: teaching more than 80,000 pre-k through 12th-grade students (and that number is growing), keeping them challenged and in school and getting them ready for higher education or the workforce.

The district’s bond package must create a better education system in Fort Worth, something that’s vital for every student and the local economy.

Parents and other residents from different parts of the district can be expected to lobby intensely for things they’d like to see for individual schools and attendance zones.

While school board members must address that political pressure, they must maintain their focus on the system as a whole and how individual schools fit into it.

If there’s an overarching vision for this year’s school bond program as articulated by Superintendent Walter Dansby, it’s equity. That is, setting a standard for all schools and all parts of the district that brings the same advantages to each.

Dansby is the school district’s greatest asset in explaining the mission of the bond program and in giving voters the confidence they’ll need before they’ll accept it. Although he’s been superintendent for only about 18 months, he’s been a part of the district since 1974 as a teacher and then top administrator.

It’s unlikely that anyone knows the district and its facilities better.

Most important in today’s context is that deputy superintendent Dansby assumed the hands-on task of supervising projects in the $593.6 million bond program approved by district voters in 2007.

Before that, the district’s most recent bond program had experienced a troublesome series of miscalculations, missteps and failures. Dansby put together a system of contractor guidelines, audits and project oversight that worked almost magically and brought virtually all of the 2007 projects in on time and with money left over.

With that effort he gained personal credibility that is priceless going into this year’s election. At the same time, the pressure on him for a repeat performance is great.

Time is short. As soon as its scheduled Aug. 13 meeting, the school board is expected to finalize the list of bond projects and call the election.

Trustees have an army of school construction experts and experienced administrators available to inform their decisions. They have highly competent financial advisers to help them determine how much the district can afford.

They’re researching how many obligations taxpayers might accept.

They’ll need all the wisdom and self-confidence they can muster. Fort Worth is counting on them.

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