PACs mobilize for, against $663 million Arlington school district bond

03/31/2014 3:36 PM

03/31/2014 3:35 PM

As the May 10 elections near, a political action committee made up of business leaders, elected officials and volunteers is working to drum up support for a $663.1 million Arlington school district bond package.

At least 60 people, many who were previously members of the school district’s Capital Needs Steering Committee, which spent several months formulating project recommendations, are part of the PAC, called Arlington First.

The school board voted 7-0 on Feb. 13 to call the largest bond package in Tarrant County history. State law, however, prohibits the district from using taxpayer dollars on campaigning for it. That is where the PAC comes in. A PAC made up of opponents is also being formed.

The bond package is “comprehensive and it’s districtwide,” said Jeff Williams, co-chairman of Arlington First. “We want to make sure and take care of all our schools and not leave any students out — that’s why it’s all or nothing.”

Trustees chose a single bond proposition instead of the breaking up the package into separate categories like technology, fine arts, security and athletics, which could have been approved or rejected by voters individually. Williams said the capital committee, which he also co-chaired, told trustees that nothing could be cut from the recommendations.

In November, voters in the Fort Worth school district approved three propositions in a $490 million bond program to add classrooms, expand pre-kindergarten and provide high-tech devices to help high school students in the digital age.

Arlington’s recommendations include a $46 million career and technical center, a $25 million athletic complex, a $32 million fine arts center, a $2.5 million agricultural science facility, $60 million in multipurpose activity centers, as well as wireless enhancements, security upgrades and building improvements.

Williams, who is president of the Arlington civil engineering firm Graham Associates, said that the district hired Jacobs Engineering to evaluate its facilities and that the PAC just “wants to equip all our students and teachers with the tools they need and the necessary repairs and renovations so our teachers don’t have to worry about infrastructure.”

But according to the Facebook page of another PAC, It’s OK to Vote No, Arlington: “Our debt at every level of government is out of control. You and your kids will be paying on this bond package for at least the next 30 years.”

Richard Weber, treasurer for It’s OK to Vote No, Arlington, said the bond package has too many “thrills” with its natatorium and athletic complex.

“This is the largest bond in Tarrant County history; since 1999 it’s going to be the third one” for the district, Weber said. “We need to turn it down and make them go back and draw it up right without all the thrills.”

Weber, who is also on the city’s bond committee, said that just because other districts have higher tax rates in Arlington doesn’t mean the 64,000-student district should add to its debt.

If approved, the bond package would increase school district property taxes by $10 a month for the owner of a $100,000 home. Homeowners over 65 would no see no tax increase. The debt service tax rate would go up 15 cents from 2016 to 2020.

Williams called the proposal “very logical.”

“The Arlington school district has one of the lowest property tax rates in Tarrant County,” he said.

Eleven area districts have tax rates higher than Arlington’s.

The district now has $445.1 million of voter-approved tax-supported debt, behind four districts in other parts of the state that are comparable in size with more than 64,000 students.

Prominent people in support of the Arlington school district bond package include Wes Jurey, president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce; Mayor Robert Cluck, state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie; Kristin Vandergriff; business owners Linda and Dan Dipert; and school board President Bowie Hogg.

Hogg said his endorsement is separate from the Arlington school district.

“We are going to always err on the side of caution and not promote [the bond package] within the school,” Hogg said. “The nature of the law is that you shouldn’t use taxpayer dollars to say, “yes” or “no,” but you can educate the community about it, and my job is to make sure the community is educated.”

Early voting begins April 28.

“We cannot afford to go any longer and let our facilities continue to deteriorate without investing,” Williams said. “We want to provide students the job skills and certifications they need to enter our workforce. We can’t go any longer without making this investment.”

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