Billions in bonds down to voters
Five area school districts seeking approval for funds
Voters in five Houston-area school districts will decide in November whether to approve bonds totaling more than $2 billion, most of which would pay for construction and renovation of campuses.
School boards in Spring Branch, Katy, Lamar, Stafford and Tomball all authorized the elections this month after lengthy reviews by committees. Together, the bonds would finance the construction of 24 schools and extensive upgrades to campuses across all five districts.
The largest bond proposal will ask Spring Branch ISD voters to authorize $898 million for rebuilding 10 schools, along with renovations and technology upgrades at the district’s other 36 campuses.
Katy ISD’s bond proposal clocked in at $609 million, with three-quarters of the money going toward six new schools. Tomball’s bond would raise $275 million. In Fort Bend County, Lamar CISD’s $445-million bond would finance the construction of five new schools, and Stafford MSD’s $62 million bond would lead to new middle and magnet schools.
Local school district bonds cannot be used on operational and instruction costs, such as staff salaries. They largely
fund construction projects, facility renovations and technology purchases.
If approved, the Spring Branch ISD bond would be the sixth-biggest school district bond in state history, according data collected by the Texas Bond Review Board. It’s a significant amount for a district with the 36th largest student population in Texas, but Spring Branch ISD hasn’t had a bond sent to voters since 2007. During that time, many districts have approved multiple bonds totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
“If you put it in that perspective, I wouldn’t say Spring Branch is an outlier,” said Karen Peck, president of the Spring Branch ISD Board of Trustees. “I’m very satisfied with what we ended up with.”
‘Was built for kids’
The Spring Branch proposal followed eight meetings of a bond advisory committee, which was made up of more than 100 local residents. Board members approved the proposal after meeting six times this summer to discuss details of the plan.
Similar to the district’s 2007 bond, the 2017 proposal would devote the largest chunk of money to reconstructing nine elementary schools, along with Landrum Middle School. Three more elementary schools, six other middle schools and four high schools would get major upgrades. Every school in the district would see some form of facilities and technology improvements.
David Slattery, a cochair of the district’s bond advisory committee, said it made more sense to reconstruct the 10 priority schools than continue to pay high maintenance costs. The average age of the 10 campuses is 55 years.
“None of this was perilous to students, but when you’ve got a facility and mechanical system that shuts down because it reaches the end and there are no replacement parts for it, that starts effecting education,” Slattery said.
In Katy ISD, board members enthusiastically backed the $609 million bond proposal, calling it necessary to alleviate issues with overcrowding.
Superintendent Lance Hindt said five of the district’s 10 schools already have more than 3,000 students, the design capacity threshold at each campus. On top of that, officials at the fast-growing district expect enrollment to climb from about 78,000 in 2017 to 98,000 in 2026.
“This bond was built for kids, with kids at the forefront of all discussions,” Hindt told trustees earlier this month.
Capacity issues cited
The proposal follows two recent, contentious bond elections in Katy. In 2013, voters rejected a $99 million bond, the majority of which would have financed a $70-million football stadium. One year later, voters approved a $748 million bond that included six new schools, six campus renovations and a $58-million stadium. Ultimately, the football facility ran $12 million over budget, drawing some criticism.
Katy ISD Board Trustee George Scott, who opposed the 2013 bond and supported the 2014 proposal, said he backs this year’s bond because the district needs to address capacity issues sooner rather than later. Scott said the 2017 proposal has been better assembled and vetted by the local bond committee than prior ones.
“I have zero hesitancy in supporting this bond,” Scott said. “Do parents really want to send their kids to a high school with 3,700 or 3,800 students? If this bond doesn’t pass, that’s the jeopardy.”
New schools for Lamar
Similar to Katy, Lamar CISD aims to build new schools to keep up with rapid growth in enrollment, which topped 30,000 in 2016-17. In the past several years, the district’s student population has increased by 4 percent annually, with some projections showing enrollment hitting 50,000 by 2026.
Lamar CISD’s $445 million proposal would fund three elementary schools, one junior high school, one high school and an alternative learning center. Those projects would account for about 70 percent of the bond spending.
Tomball ISD’s $275 million bond would go toward a new elementary school, junior high school and 10,000-seat football stadium for districtwide use, among other projects. Tomball Memorial High School, which has five portable classrooms on campus, would also expand under the proposal.
The $62 million Stafford MSD bond would, in part, finance a new 850-student middle school and a magnet school for science, technology, engineering and math in grades 3 through 12.