In the Grapevine-Colleyville school district, blue slips from the Tarrant Appraisal District have arrived in mailboxes — a reminder of taxes owed and that it's election season.
The suburban district, which has an enrollment of more than 13,800, has long been known as a "Robin Hood" district because every year a chunk of local tax dollars is sent away to help poorer Texas schools. Grapevine-Colleyville educators and school trustees have pushed lawmakers in Austin for changes that would keep local school dollars at home while adding specialized programs they say boost them as a destination district for families.
This election season, voters will decide who will sit on Place 1 and Place 2 of the seven-member school board. Five candidates filed for election: In Place 1, incumbent Mindy McClure is being challenged by Tim Raine while in Place 2, incumbent Becky St. John is being challenged by candidates, Amy Putnam and Nicholas Walters ( a write-in candidate).
As the school district's property values have increased through the years, the annual "Robin Hood" payment has gone up — from $27.9 million in the 2012-2013 to a projected $55 million for 2018-2019. When residents look at their tax bills, school taxes are a hefty chunk, candidates said.
"I believe the biggest issue is financial with regard to what we're doing being financially unsustainable in a Robin Hood environment. We need to adjust now, not later," Raine said.
Under the district's current tax rate, the owner of a single-family home valued at $337,836 — the average value in the district in September 2017 — had a tax bill of $4,718.56 (with no exemptions) last year. As values are projected to continue to increase in North Texas, taxpayers are bracing to pay more school taxes this year.
"We are in the process of getting our 2018 April estimate ready. They won’t be out until later this month; however, I do expect overall property values to be up," said Jeff Law, the chief tax appraiser in Tarrant County. "For the past three years the real estate market in both North Texas and the rest of the state has been active."
St. John said the district has worked to bring strong academic programs while leaders urge Austin lawmakers to retool public school financing. While Grapevine-Colleyville voters tend to understand, trustees face a conundrum: “How to communicate and sympathize with our taxpayer that their tax bill is outrageous and continue to funds the programs that parents are passionate about."
The district's specialized academic programs, school safety and parental rights are also among issues that candidates are discussing in the days leading up to early voting, which begins on April 23. Candidates have been talking to organizations and voters at various forums.
School board races in Texas are normally nonpartisan, but some say this season somewhat mirrors national and statewide contests in which voters are asked to choose between conservative candidates or those to the right of them.
Raine and Putnam have been endorsed by the NE Tarrant Tea Party.
"This is a power duo to be reckoned with," wrote Julie McCarty, president of the local party, in a recent email to group members. "They have our full endorsement, and we hope you will spread the word."
McClure, who describes herself as a Reagan-style Republican, said in the current political climate having a campaign sign in a known Democrat's yard can be controversial. Additionally, she said challengers have the support of Empower Texans, a statewide Tea Party group.
Raine, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative, said that the term "conservative" is relative and that he is not a member of the Tea Party. He said the issues driving the election are fiscal.
"This is about math," he said. It's about taxes and it is about student performance."
Putnam, who voted for Donald Trump, said that she is a staunch Republican and that Empower Texans is not running her campaign. She countered: "I did fill out the Empower Texans questionnaire, and understand they did endorse Tim and myself this week as a result of our position on cleaning our own house financially instead of blaming Robin Hood 100 percent for the district’s financial situation."
The race for Place 1
McClure, 48, an attorney who became a stay-at-home mother, is running for a second term. She said she wants to continue a "culture of innovation" that is taking place in the district. She said teachers, students and parents have been the impetus for specialized programs that she wants to continue to promote.
"It's an exciting time here," McClure said, adding that she supports the integration of technology in the district to prepare students for future jobs.
McClure said the district has invested in improving school safety and recently hired a person to oversee safety and emergency preparedness. On the subject of parental rights, she said: "There is no substitute for an involved parent."
Raine, 58, served as past president of the school board and said district fiances called him back to serve.
"I feel the the current curriculum delivery model is financially unsustainable. The current path has not yielded increased objective test scores and a concern regarding over reliance of technology that weakens teacher classroom impact," he said in an email. He said he current finance system to too "socialist."
Raine said he supports conducting a school security review and taking steps to "harden potential targets."
The race for Place 2
St. John, 48, is seeking to be re-elected to the Place 2 post so she can be involved in the continued focus on specialized academic programs, including in the areas of STEM and gifted and talented. She said the district has moved from responding to continued student growth to fine-tuning academics.
Helping fix Texas' public school funding is also a continued focus, she said, adding that last school year the district made a $44 million Robin Hood payment. This year, the district projects making a payment of more than $50 million.
"Robin Hood is always an obstacle," St. John said. "It's not an excuse; it is an issue that we have to constantly tackle."
Putnam, who has taught in Arlington and Southlake Carroll schools, wants to tackle the district's financing.
"We are spending, borrowing and taxing at historic levels and not improving academic achievement," Putnam told the Star-Telegram in an email. And district enrollment is flat, she said, "so our taxpayers are paying much more for less."
On social media, Putnam weighed in on parental rights after a Mansfield arts teacher was placed on administrative leave after a parent complained she had mentioned her same-sex partner to her elementary school students.
"I take the absolute broadest interpretation of parental rights and will craft policy that allows parents to be 'full partners with educators' in the education, and safety, of our children," Putnam told the Star-Telegram. "We have been following the Mansfield ISD parental rights case and I fully ascribe to their policy."
St. John said communication between educators and parents is vital.
"Parents are always supposed to be partners with their child's education," St. John said.
Walters said he has eased off campaigning in recent days because he doesn't think he can garner enough votes.