Northeast Tarrant

Voters to decide on $208 million Carroll school bond

Improvements would be made at the Carroll school district aquatics center under a proposed $208 million bond issue.
Improvements would be made at the Carroll school district aquatics center under a proposed $208 million bond issue.

First, the good news for Carroll taxpayers: The $208 million bond election will not increase the property tax rate if it passes May 6, and the school district has already lowered the tax rate by a penny since 2015.

The bad news, according to opponents, is that the bond issue would reduce the likelihood the tax burden in Carroll will be reduced in the future.

And, there’s the question of whether it’s necessary or not.

Early voting for the bond election starts April 24 and lasts through May 2.

The list of projects includes expanding all five elementary schools, building a new 700-seat performance hall at Carroll Senior High School and improving the Aquatics Center and other facilities. It also includes technology and safety upgrades throughout all 11 campuses. For a full campus-by-campus breakdown, click here.

"What was driving a lot of our discovery was how do we get our schools fixed so they’re operating right and giving our folks and our kids what they need to be successful every day?" said Bill Webb, a father of three who was on the planning committee that put the bond package together.

He’s also leading Dragons for Excellence, the group supporting the bond election campaign.

Crushing tax burden

But opponents with Dragons for Fiscal Responsibility and Strong Schools say the district isn’t telling the whole story.

The Carroll school district has capacity to issue more debt while maintaining the tax rate because property valuations shot up 10.9 percent in 2016 and have gone up steadily in previous years. That’s from a mix of new construction, such as new stores, restaurants, offices and homes, and rising valuations for existing properties.

"This particular bond is ill-advised because it locks us into higher taxes for the foreseeable future," said Jim Palazzo, who opposes the bond and who ran unsuccessfully for Carroll school board in 2013.

"People are getting crushed under the burden of the increasing taxes in the school district,” he said. “I know that we have to have tax relief because Southlake is becoming unaffordable. People need to push back and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ "

The proponents’ biggest selling point, that the bond wouldn’t raise the tax rate, could be a detriment, too.

"All that says is that the tax rate right now is too high," said Palazzo. "They don’t know that you can have a good school district and you can reduce taxes at the same time."

The cards Carroll is dealt

Nobody wants to pay more taxes, but these are the cards Texas school districts are dealt, Webb said.

Carroll is a property-wealthy district that paid $19 million last year into Robin Hood, which redistributes the money to property-poor districts throughout Texas.

The Carroll tax rate consists of the maintenance and operations tax rate, set at $1.04 per $100 of assessed valuation, and the interest and sinking rate, set at 35 cents and used to pay off bond debt.

Carroll doesn’t get the benefit of rising property valuations for its maintenance and operations tax rate because the money is recaptured by the state for redistribution.

"I’m as conservative on that side as anyone," Webb said. "Even as valuations go up, and they are, any extra money that we pay doesn’t go to our district. It goes to Robin Hood. The state has decided, the courts have decided, this is how schools are funded in Texas. Either way, we’ve got to fix our schools. This is the most cost-effective way to do that."

The interest and sinking tax rate is a dollar-for-dollar match not subject to recapture.

Bill Zimmerman, treasurer of Dragons for Fiscal Responsibility and Strong Schools, said this isn’t a dollar-for-dollar match because Carroll will nearly double its debt load with the bond election and will have to pay interest on that.

Is it needed?

The Capital Needs Planning Committee consisted of 40 taxpayers and employees from the district who met in 30 public meetings last year to discuss their project list.

"The process was long but everybody got on the same page," Webb said. "This was not what the administration came up with — this was our recommendation. They’re our kids, they’re our schools. It’s our community and it’s our bond election."

Many of the items didn’t make it onto the 2009 bond program and still needed to be done, Webb said. That bond issue was for $138 million and constructed the new Carroll Middle School and Walnut Grove Elementary School.

Building the new $24 million performing arts building triggers a domino effect by freeing up space for STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) programs to move into the old band space at Carroll High School. Choir would also move into the new facility, freeing up space at CSHS for journalism and theater.

The committee looked at the life cycle of buildings, which included items such as air conditioning units and leaky equipment at the Aquatics Center, as well as technology.

Walnut Grove Elementary School is overcrowded now but demographer data shows Rockenbaugh and Old Union elementary schools in the southern portion of the district will be beyond capacity in the future.

Zimmerman said Carroll is a low-growth district, adding less than 200 net students per year in 2016 and less than 100 net students each of the past four years before that.

Zimmerman said portable buildings would be a better solution because they can be moved from campus to campus as enrollment dictates.

"They’re spending $49 million on five campuses," he said. "You can build two new schools from scratch for that much. We think it’s a bloated bond. We think the numbers are excessively high."

Shifting the cost

New ceiling tile and an LED lighting project are emblematic of how decisions in Austin affect local school districts.

By retrofitting existing campuses with more energy-efficient lighting, Carroll can shift the cost from the ongoing electric bill, which comes out of the maintenance and operations budget, to the debt side, Webb said.

"We looked for what we could do that reduces operating costs," he said. "The LED lights were the perfect example of that. The retrofit drives savings on the m&o side."

Zimmerman said issuing debt to rip up the ceilings for LED lights isn’t necessary.

"The interest makes it cost more," he said. "You end up paying twice as much for it. At some point the numbers become so blatantly absurd, you have to say this is awesome how you get people to look at these numbers and not roll their eyes."  

This report contains information from the Star-Telegram archives.