Bond plan is ready for prime time

Posted Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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It has required intense work and has drawn plenty of concern and controversy during the past month, but Fort Worth school district officials have pared, revised and re-estimated their way to a bond proposal worthy of going before voters.

Along the way, those officials have demonstrated respect for the people who will be casting their votes and for the students who could benefit.

When parents in the Tanglewood Elementary area raised heated concerns about initial proposals, school administrators and planners listened.

When Chamber of Commerce board members fretted about the tax impact and other implications of what at first was a $785 million project list, school district leaders and board members took their concerns to heart.

Decisions on whether to call an election were delayed. School folks and their consultants dove deeply back into what had already been a months-long study of district needs — and decided some of those needs were less needed than others.

They cut almost $300 million from that initial list. Just as important, they split the remaining package into three parts. Voters can decide whether they believe one, two, three or none of those parts should be approved.

Trustees are scheduled to meet today for one last round of public comment, one last look at the project list and then a decision about calling a Nov. 5 election.

The pared-back package to be proposed by Superintendent Walter Dansby deserves unanimous support from the school board. It’s ready for voters.

The package includes:

• Proposition 1 — The $386.6 million core of the bond plan, what Dansby calls “the most essential elements to give all kids the advantages that others have.”

It calls for school construction and classroom additions, security and technology upgrades, remodeled food service areas and improvements for specialty studies.

• Proposition 2 — $73 million for a performing and fine arts school serving grades 6-12, as well a downtown school for those same grades focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

• Proposition 3 — $30 million for school buses, other district vehicles, uniforms and other equipment.

Hank Johnson, the district’s deputy superintendent for business, finance and operations, also went back to the drawing board on the guts of the finance plan.

Johnson said the district could apply the benefits of refinancing current debt at lower interest rates and take steps like using $10 million from current debt service reserves (keeping a reserve balance of $7 million to $9 million).

That means the owner of a $115,000 home, the average for the district, could see a potential tax increase of $10 a year for Proposition 1, Johnson said.

Adding Proposition 2 would bring the total impact to $25, he said, while approval for all three propositions could increase the taxes on that average home by $30 a year. Taxes for senior citizens are frozen.

Dansby has shown particular devotion to four elements of the proposal, all of which remain in Proposition 1.

He has emphasized security enhancements costing $12.1 million. Interest in school safety has been high since December’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Dansby has focused on $102.5 million to improve technology infrastructure at schools and provide tablet or laptop computers for students.

He has pushed $59.6 million for a new elementary school, conversion of a school in Benbrook to serve grades 6 through 12 and additions to other schools, all to address enrollment growth.

And dear to the superintendent is almost $24 million to add pre-K classrooms at 15 schools. The district provides pre-K for about 4,000 students, and the expansion would bring that to 7,000.

Educators say the pre-K experience measurably improves student performance in later grades, to the point that many who miss it never catch up.

School board members have played a forceful role in revising the bond plan. They’ll now have a final look, after which they should give voters the opportunity to have a say on Nov. 5.

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