Keller district officials hope to educate public on bond plan

08/09/2014 3:53 PM

08/09/2014 3:55 PM

Despite not having to increase the tax rate, Keller school district officials expect to face some opposition if they move forward with a $169.5 million bond election in November.

“We did a survey a few weeks ago, and the response showed the vote today would be close,” Superintendent Randy Reid told school board and City Council members at a meeting last week. “It has to do with the total amount of debt and not about the individual projects.”

Reid will host a town hall meeting on the bond proposal at 6 p.m. Monday at the Keller ISD Education Center. Trustees are scheduled to vote on calling the bond election at a meeting Tuesday.

The Keller school district has about $680 million in total bond debt, or around $20,500 per student, according to a 2013 report from Texas Comptroller Susan Combs. Neighboring districts Birdville and Hurst-Euless-Bedford, and recent big bond winners Arlington and Fort Worth have lower per-student rates of bond debt.

Reid said that most districts with high bond debt have been adding new students quickly. Keller enrollment has grown 217 percent in 15 years. Fast-growth districts Northwest and Mansfield have higher per-student bond debts than Keller, as do property-wealthy districts Carroll and Grapevine-Colleyville.

Keller Councilman Rick Barnes said voters are concerned about higher debt in all parts of government, from cities and school districts to Austin and Washington.

Though many area communities have been favoring big bond packages, success in neighboring communities doesn’t necessarily indicate smooth sailing in Keller.

A November 2013 Keller city bond election to raise money for roads failed by one vote. In 2008, the most recent Keller district bond election, voters approved $142 million for new schools and upgrades but rejected a $25 million stadium. District residents passed bond proposals in 2006 and 2005 but rejected a 2004 bond proposal in its entirety.

Educating the public

The current proposal is designed to address enrollment growth of 300 to 400 students a year, program changes brought about by House Bill 5 and its focus on career training, and needs of older facilities.

The bond plan includes renovating and expanding South Keller Intermediate School to make it a career and technical education center, building three schools on the district’s southwest side and a major renovation and expansion at Keller High School.

“I anticipate that this is the last bond where we will need multiple new facilities,” Reid said.

Councilman Tom Cawthra asked whether school officials had considered separating projects based on priority.

Reid said the components are too closely intertwined. The new schools and expansions at older ones are designed to let officials tweak feeder patterns to distribute students more evenly and to utilize all facilities better.

“If there was a piece of the bond we felt was a sticking point, we could separate it,” he said. “It’s not that; it’s the debt issue. It’s important for us to get out and educate the public.”

‘A lot of boundary challenges’

Mayor Mark Mathews asked whether district officials have a backup plan in case the bond proposal fails.

Reid said they would probably regroup and propose a more modest plan with just what they need for growth.

“There would be a lot of boundary challenges and just continuing with more of the same,” he said.

What would be missing would be better educational opportunities for district high school students.

Trustee Cindy Lotton said most area districts have career and technical education centers or are building them. Keller is behind its neighbors in providing advanced equipment and training for students.

“Reputation only gets you so far,” Lotton said. “Sooner or later, families will go where they have the best programs.”

Councilman Bill Hodnett said that district officials should focus on educating voters.

“A good story will pass a mediocre bond, but a poor story will doom a great bond,” Hodnett said.

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