Tablet Opinion

Birdville, Keller school districts face a shadowy foe

For parents and alumni backing Birdville or Keller school bonds, an opposing voter might be as close as the newcomer next door.

But the money to pay for the slick, well-staffed anti-bond campaigns comes from somewhere else:

Dallas.

Every penny of the $56,198 spent to oppose Birdville and Keller school improvements came from Dallas hotelier Monty Bennett’s MJB Operating, at least according to the latest campaign reports.

Bennett, who spent more than $235,000 last year in a failed attempt to take control of the Tarrant Regional Water District because of a personal land dispute, seems to be playing more politics this election, paying outsiders to work the polls as part of a statewide campaign against debt.

“I think voters ought to know who stands for or against something and why, and what their interests are,” said the Rev. Billy Parks, pastor of Davis Boulevard Baptist Church in North Richland Hills and treasurer of the BISD Backers PAC, which supports that district’s $163 million proposal.

“I have not talked with Mr. Bennett. I’ve never met him.”

Backers of the Birdville bonds, in particular, have made extra efforts to explain the district’s current debt load and capability. The Keller district, now mostly serving north Fort Worth but still upholding its small-town legacy, has twice the debt but also has faster growth and more needs.

No campaign manager would have advised trustees to ask approval for bonds or debt this election cycle, particularly not in very conservative Northeast Tarrant County.

Most voters in the 10 cities of the Birdville and Keller districts — the Keller district alone stretches for 51 square miles — probably don’t have kids in public school or didn’t grow up as Buffalos or Rebels or Panthers or Indians.

But in many ways, the Birdville and Keller districts promote more community loyalty and pride than the smaller cities.

Old-timers know that state Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Sen. Wendy Davis went to Richland High School a year apart, but not that Hancock lived in North Richland Hills and Davis in Richland Hills.

Some Keller city residents are proud, others pained, that so many north Fort Worth residents say they “live in Keller.”

“I think the biggest challenge has just been getting the message out about Birdville and what we stand for,” Parks said.

“There are so many misconceptions and false arguments. My wife talked with somebody who said, ‘That’s all for sports.’ None of it’s for sports.”

It’s also tough to explain to homeowners over 65 that it won’t cost them more money. (School taxes are frozen at 65.)

Joel Starnes of Fort Worth, leader of the anti-bond PAC funded by Bennett in Keller, did not return a midday call.

In September, Aaron Harris of North Richland Hills-based Direct Action Texas, said his company would manage the anti-bond campaign and will also campaign against water board incumbents next year.

Then, Harris said public entities have too much debt and “the schools are always going to cry about needing more money.” He is a graduate of an evangelical Christian school in east Fort Worth.

Parks said that as a minister, he supports the public schools and that the Birdville district has strong relationships with local churches.

“I have people in my congregation who home-school, and that’s an individual choice,” he said. “I believe strong public schools are a good influence in building a strong community.”

He is perplexed how to argue with a stranger from another community.

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