With soaring property values, low interest rates and a strong bond market, school districts across Texas are pouncing on the opportunity to hold bond elections to build more schools and make upgrades to existing campuses.
The climate is quite different from the recession years when the state was battling budget cuts, which made school districts weary of asking voters to approve spending millions of their tax dollars.
“There is a bit of a pent up demand because of the recession,” said Bob Bland, a professor with expertise in government affairs at the University of North Texas in Denton. “Politically, it was just not a good time.”
Tuesday is Election Day and 50 school districts — out of more than 1,000 — will hold bond elections totaling $7.7 billion in Texas, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
The Austin school district is asking for about $1 billion, the largest bond package in the state, followed by Spring Branch ($898.4 million) and Fort Worth, which is asking voters to approve a $750 million bond proposal.
“School districts are still reeling from the $5 billion-plus costs to the education budget that were made in 2011,” said Andy Canales, director of research for Children at Risk, a statewide advocacy group for disadvantaged students. “School districts have to take matters into their own hands and be creative.”
The $750 million bond package in Fort Worth is the largest in Tarrant County history and will be used to renovate 14 high schools and address overcrowding and campus growth in several areas of the district.
The Aledo and Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school districts are also asking voters to approve bond packages. Aledo has two propositions totatling $73 million and Eagle Mountain-Saginaw is seeking $524.7 million, the fifth largest bond package in the state.
Joe Smith, a retired superintendent who created the TexasISD.com website, explained that Texas doesn’t participate in school facilities construction. He said larger urban districts, like Fort Worth, are trying to improve aging buildings while growing suburban districts typically need more space and want to build new schools in open land.
“Most of it is on the back of local taxpayers,” Smith said.
‘Strong, neighborhood schools’
Tuesday’s bond election is the third time in 10 years that Fort Worth school leaders have turned to voters to help pay for school upgrades.
Still, aspects of the bond program have drawn some critics.
Some parents with students at the Young Men’s Leadership Academy in southeast Fort Worth question whether plans to move the academy closer to Dunbar High School are a smart move. Supporters of YMLA worry the campuses will lose their identities if they are too close or share athletic facilities.
“I have an issue with the bond,” said Monnie Gilliam, whose grandson attended YMLA. “I think we have enough done deals.”
In the Tanglewood community near TCU, parents have pushed to know where the bond proposal calls for a new K-5 school to be built. The school district has information online aimed at answering questions from Tanglewood families.
The bond program is backed by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, which created a specific-purpose political action committee, Citizens for Classroom Excellence.
“For decades, the chamber has supported every school bond election, because it’s critical to our mission and to our competitiveness as a city that we help students attain the highest level of education possible,” said Bill Thornton, president and CEO of the chamber.
The issue of education equity is also central to bond programs and it’s a critical concern for schools systems that serve children in poverty, experts said.
“What we are asked for constantly are strong, neighborhood schools in the community within walking distance of homes, and we have those,” said Tobi Jackson, president of the Fort Worth school board. “We just need to restore that infrastructure and build every school so it is equitable.”
Eagle Mountain-Saginaw and Aledo
In Eagle Mountain-Saginaw schools, voters will decide on a $524.7 million bond program to build a fourth high school, purchase land for future schools, and pay for a new natatorium in partnership with the YMCA. That district projects an estimated increase of 3,300 students in the next five years. The proposed bond includes funding to pay for land for future schools.
Eagle Mountain-Saginaw’s bond proposal is the fifth largest to go before voters on Nov. 7. School leaders have highlighted “zero impact to the tax rate” and a need to address growth and equity.
“As our taxable values grow, our capacity to sell more bonds increases as well,” said Jim Schiele, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw’s chief financial officer, in a news release. “Based on conservative growth assumptions, it is estimated that we can issue the total recommended amount of $524.7 million over the next eight years while maintaining the existing tax rate.”
In Aledo, voters have two propositions. One proposition uses $64.2 million for a new 900-student middle school and renovation of an existing building to create an elementary school. The second proposition allocates about $8.7 million to help pay for upgrades in learning spaces for agricultural, career and technology classes.
“This bond addresses the capacity limitations in Aledo ISD as we move forward as a fast-growth district,” said Aledo Superintendent Derek Citty. “Of all four major components found within this bond program, perhaps the most significant is the need for a second middle school.”
Citty said Aledo Middle School has a capacity of 957 students. The targeted opening date for a second middle school is August 2020, with an anticipated enrollment of 1,666 for grades six through eight.
“I think this best typifies the kind of growth we are experiencing in our community,” Citty said.
An anti-bond brochure floated in the community states: “Seize the Opportunity to Say ‘Enough is Enough’ to another increase in our property taxes!”
This report contains information from the Star-Telegram archives.
Bond election season
At least 50 school districts in Texas are conducting bond packages. Here are the five most expensive:
Spring Branch: $898,400,000
Fort Worth: $750,000,000
Eagle Mountain-Saginaw: $524,700,000
Source: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts