Mike Norman

March 27, 2014

Comptroller shines light on May bond elections

Arlington ISD proposal is the third-largest in the state, but still looks good.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs is out with new data on “more than 50” city and school bond elections on the May 10 ballot across Texas.

The one for the Arlington school district, at $663.1 million, still looks big. But it’s more important to note that, under all of the light that Combs shines on it, the AISD bond package still looks good financially.

Whether it’s good educationally is what Arlington voters should decide.

AISD’s package is the state’s third-largest in the May elections, behind a couple of monsters.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD near Houston is asking voters for $1.2 billion in new facilities, security and safety enhancements, facility renovations, transportation and technology.

Cy-Fair already had $1.21 billion in outstanding debt as of Aug. 31. It’s a big district, almost 110,000 students, up almost 47 percent since 2003-04. Debt per student is $15,843, up 9.5 percent in the past 10 years.

Next-largest on the list for May 10 is Frisco ISD’s $775 million bond package. Frisco had $1.35 billion in outstanding debt as of Aug. 31, which is $31,815 per student.

Frisco has trimmed its outstanding debt per student almost 24 percent since 2003-04.

If Arlington ISD’s proposal can’t look good stacked up against those two, it should be in trouble. The ballot proposition is meant to cover spending on school construction, athletic facilities at high schools, fine arts, safety and security enhancements and technology.

The comparison data: AISD’s last bond election ($197.5 million) was in 2009. The most recent before that was in 1999. Outstanding debt as of Aug. 31 was $445 million, or $6,858 per student, says the report from Combs.

The 10-year trend on AISD’s per-student debt is down 32.4 percent.

When Combs stacked the Arlington district’s per-student debt figure up against nine others its size across the state, only three were lower: Aldine at $5,916, Garland at $6,429 and El Paso at $6,734.

The highest in that group was San Antonio’s North East ISD at $21,338 per student.

The clear message is that Arlington ISD has been debt-frugal, both in terms of raw dollars and in comparison with other districts.

That should counter some of the arguments from people who paint all districts with the same broad, free-spending brush.

It should help focus voter attention on the merit or lack of merit of the specific items in the AISD proposal.

School board members literally spent years defining strategic goals and academic objectives for the district.

Then they asked a 38-member committee of students, parents, teachers and community representatives to help determine what facilities and other capital spending items would aid in reaching those goals.

The result is a bold, if big, vision for public education in Arlington.

Not everyone will agree with it. Some will say it costs too much (the tax increase on a $100,000 home will be about $120 a year). It’s OK for voters to hold those opinions.

The best of all worlds will be that voters cast their ballots not on some vague notion that district debt levels are too high, because the figures from Combs show otherwise.

The question really should be about whether the things in this package — a career and technical center, fine arts center, multipurpose activity centers, science labs, two new elementaries, security upgrades, building renovations and other items — will create the kind of school district Arlington residents want.

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