Future of San Marcos CISD central office in limbo as board remains divided

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A lively debate in February among the San Marcos CISD board of trustees revealed a dais deeply divided on where to put the district’s new central administration office.

The board voted 4-3 on Feb. 18 to postpone choosing the location for a new central administration office, as some trustees worried their votes would have long-lasting implications for future growth of the office as well as the preservation of the district’s South LBJ Drive property, where the old central administration building once stood.

“Let me be clear about my position: I’m not going to be the fourth vote for either site because that does a disservice to the taxpayers in the district that we’re going to make such a monumental decision with such a divided board,” said trustee John McGlothlin, who voted to table the issue for a future meeting. “We’re only going to do this once. This is a once-in-a-50-year thing.”

The district voted in late 2017 to relocate the central office to a temporary space on Mill Street—for which the district pays $12,000 a month—following air quality tests conducted by two different companies. The test results showed that there was mold in the original central office building, making it unsafe for work. Though the district still owns the South LBJ property, the building has since been demolished.

Now, the board is faced with deciding between two potential construction sites, both of which the district already owns: a vacant, 11.96-acre property at Hunter Road and Suttles Drive or the 2.5-acre property on South LBJ where the original office was once located. Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos, commonly referred to as El Centro, sits directly next to the LBJ site on land the district also owns.

While trustees Lupe Costilla, Margie Villalpando and Kathy Hansen were ready to cast their votes for the Hunter site, the other four trustees feared that leaving the LBJ site vacant would put the future of El Centro at risk.

El Centro, a nonprofit community and cultural center that opened in 2010 on the district’s South LBJ property, is made up of an art gallery, a library, a museum and an activity area where visitors can participate in public programs, classes and events.

Costilla, who along with Villalpando is one of the founders of El Centro, said she is invested in the preservation of the cultural center, but she felt voting for the Hunter site is what would be best for the district.

“I have on, right now, a hat for representing San Marcos CISD,” Costilla said. “And as that, I have to make a decision of what’s best for San Marcos CISD. So I am not trying to not think about Centro;  I’m trying to make a decision for what’s best for San Marcos CISD, and that’s the way I’m seeing it.”

The district administration recommended the board vote to build at the Hunter site and preserve the LBJ property for future use, such as the establishment of a community park or an early college-readiness center.

In its recommendation to the board, the administration stated that compared to the 2.5-acre LBJ property, the Hunter site would be better suited to future expansion, as the property consists of 11.96 acres. The recommendation stated that in addition to being larger, the Hunter site—which is not located in the downtown area—is subject to less-strict city zoning regulations.

Executive Director of Communications Andrew Fernandez said the district will be more restricted if it builds the office at the LBJ site because it would have to meet additional water-quality and drainage standards and would have to initiate the costly process of removing several trees.

However, trustees Clementine Cantu, Anne Halsey, Miguel Arredondo and McGlothlin said they feared the future of El Centro would be put in jeopardy if SMCISD were to leave the LBJ site vacant for plans to which the district has made no legally binding or written or commitment.

“I agree and understand and believe that we’re not going to sell Centro today, that the seven of us sitting up here are not going to vote to sell Centro while we serve on this board,” Arredondo said. “But as budgets become fixed and finite in the future, a future board is going to sell whatever site is available to them for money.”

According to property appraisals obtained by the district, the LBJ site is worth $2.3 million, excluding the part El Centro stands on, which, by itself, is worth an estimated $640,000—bringing the value of the entirety of the LBJ site to $2.94 million. According to a March 2018 appraisal of the Hunter site, it is worth $1.56 million.

Halsey said that while she thinks it would be “amazing” for the district to build a community park at the LBJ site in the future, she does not think the board would be able to justify turning a $2.3 million property into a park as district funds become more limited.

Furthermore, Halsey said that if the trustees choose to build the central office at the Hunter site, the LBJ site will sit vacant unless the board calls for a bond election—and she does not believe it will—because the district does not presently have enough money to build anything there.

At a special-called meeting March 4, the trustees voted 6-1, with Hansen casting the sole dissenting vote, to schedule a public hearing regarding the potential donation of the land El Centro sits on to El Centro.

The board is faced with the decision of choosing a site to build the new central office on because its original plan proved unsuccessful.

In February 2018,  the board decided to renovate a portion of Mendez Elementary School and turn it into the new central office. However, the bid proposal was substantially out of the district’s $4.5 million budget, and the board opted not to call a bond election necessary to move forward at Mendez, stating trustees did not think the bond would pass.

Exploring the feasibility of putting the central office at Mendez cost the district about $100,000, which came out of the $4.5 million for the project.

McGlothlin said he believes building at the LBJ site would be the best choice not only because it would preserve El Centro in perpetuity by ensuring the land it sits on would not be sold in the future, but also because it would also allow the district to sell the Hunter Road site.

Selling the Hunter property, he said, would give the district the ability to use the $1.56 million from the sale to offset the $100,000 already spent from the project’s budget and lower the district’s net expenditure on the project.

“That seems to be the most, you know, frugal use of taxpayer dollars because we would recover $1.5 million, and it could be applied toward the $4.5 million cost, so we just have a net expenditure of $3 million—which is better,” McGlothlin said.

As the board debated the pros and cons of each property, it became clear some trustees felt their votes, if taken, would not only decide where to build the central office, but would also determine whether the LBJ property would stay under district ownership in the long run.

However, Costilla, Villalpando and Hansen said they did not want to delay the vote any further.

“We have all the information we have here to make a decision,” Costilla said. “I don’t understand what more information we’re looking for. If it’s going to go forward, it’s going to go forward. Or are you going to change your mind ,or am I going to change my mind? I don’t understand what the purpose [of delaying the vote]  is.”

Cantu said that while she understands the board should make a decision about the central office soon, she believes the trustees need more time to address concerns.

“I know that it’s a very difficult vote ,and we’ve had a lot of discussion back and forth,” Cantu said. “I fully support El Centro and hope that if we hold on to that property that the district will utilize it as we’re saying that we’re going to.”

Although Costilla, Hansen and Villalpando were in favor of making a final decision on the new office locations at the Feb. 18 meeting, the other four trustees voted to reconsider the issue at a later date. At a March 4 special-called meeting, the trustees said they are aiming  to put the vote on the agenda for the April 15 meeting.

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Anna Herod covers local government, education, business and the environment for the San Marcos and Hays County communities. Born and raised in Texas, Anna moved from North Texas to San Marcos in 2014 where she has been covering local news ever since. Her bylines have appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Hays Free Press and The Burleson Star. She is a graduate of Texas State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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