Bil­lions in bonds down to vot­ers

Five area school dis­tricts seek­ing ap­proval for funds

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Ja­cob Car­pen­ter

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.

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