The Conroe ISD met for a special workshop on June 4, discussing the ramifications of the recent state legislative session, the potential budget for the 2019-2020 school year and the effects of the May bond failure on Conroe High School.
“We are still receiving information from the state daily and it changes our outlook,” Superintendent Curtis Null said.
The Texas State Legislature recently passed several bills including House Bill 3, which created requirements for full-day pre-K, increased teacher pay and compressed tax rates.
Deputy Superintendent Chris Hines said the district currently offers two half-day sessions for pre-K and will serve 1,468 students in the 2019-20 school year. He said he believes the enrollment would likely increase once full-day service begins, doubling the number of children needing transportation, lunch and other services.
CISD First Vice President Skeeter Hubert asked what the state’s rationale was behind passing this legislation. Hines said research has shown how impactful early education can be on a child’s education.
“The acquiring of those skills early really makes a difference. Once gaps grow, it’s very difficult for students to close those gaps,” Hines said. “It really is about trying to target students for accelerated learning rates.”
The board of trustees agreed they would need to use at least one of the two three-year waivers offered by the state to prepare facilities for the increased service. Hines said the district could create pilot programs on campuses that are capable of housing a large number of children to see what works, but did not indicate which schools might be chosen.
CISD Second Vice President Scott Moore suggested considering a specialized pre-K center to serve some of the denser populations, but the board agreed more research was needed.
HB 3 also requires districts to use 30% of revenue gain to compensate full-time non-administrative employees, using 75% for teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians. That means the district must use at least $7.56 million to give this group of employees a raise. The board reviewed various scenarios for raises, ranging from 3% to 6% for teachers.
However, the details of who will receive a raise and exact amounts are still being decided. CISD President Datren Williams said employees who work with children, including literacy coaches, should be categorized as teachers for their raises.
“It just seemed like the categorization of those as administrators wasn’t correct,” Williams said.
The board did not decide on the specifics of the raises. Hubert suggesting using the lower pay raise because it was unclear if the funding for the raises would be sustainable.
Null said he would take the board’s suggestions and return with new information.
The legislature provided a $0.07 tax compression—or mandatory lowering of taxes—for maintenance and operations, but the bill also prohibits school districts from increasing the maintenance and operations tax to pay off debt.
The bill reduces the maintenance and operations tax from $1.06 to $0.97. To make up for that, Chief Financial Officer Darrin Rice said the district would need to increase the debt service tax rate to maintain the annual $10 million the board has historically used to pay off debt. But even with the increased debt service, the overall tax rate would still lower from $1.28 to $1.235.
Null said previous boards have primarily focused on keeping the tax rate as low as possible. He said this compression now allows the district to keep and low tax rate and use cash, not bonds, to pay off debt.
Although the 2018-2019 school year just ended, the board is now looking to the preliminary budget for the next year. The district is set for the opening of Suchma Elementary in Conroe and the 11th grade at Grand Oaks High School in Spring for the 2019-2020 school year.
With the increased funding from HB 3, the district now has $6.1 million available for the 2019-2020 school year. Rice recommended saving the money to retain funding for new programs, support the next year’s budget and provide a safety net for any unforeseen expenses.
Rice also went over several plans for the fund balance and made recommendations to finalize the purchase of two tracts of land: the Jacobs property on McCaleb Road and Littlefield property on 242. He also recommended using $1.5 million to purchase new school buses.
“On July 10, I’ll be presenting our budget to the District Level Planning and Decision Making Committee. They will at that point make a recommendation that I will bring to the board and I plan on doing that at the July 16 meeting,” Rice said.
Rice said the board will hold public hearings on Aug. 6, and finalize and approve the budget on Aug. 20. Null recommended the board organize a July workshop to go over the details of the changes.
The board also looked at potential rezoning of school districts in 2020 if a hypothetical November bond fails. This would include the expansion of the College Park High School and the Oak Ridge High School district, and the shrinking of The Woodlands High School and the Conroe High School districts.
“This is not a plan we want to do,” Null said. “If we do not have a successful bond in November of 2019, moving forward we’re not going to do additions to The Woodlands High School and College Park High School.”
He said the district does not want to put this map in play because it would affect a lot of families and their high school feeder zones.
If the board receives a bond in November, Null said they could rezone elementary schools simply to address capacity without making dramatic changes to keep high school feeders the same. Hubert suggested waiting until after a November bond vote because the outcome will affect the changes the district needs to make.
Conroe High School
The repercussions of the May 4 bond failure include Conroe High School’s Phase 2 expansion, which was originally going to be funded by the bond. Without that money, the board is deciding whether to push the original plan through to the community or reduce the scope of the renovations.
The original Phase 2 plan cost more than $146 million. Null said the board could still pursue this plan, but the main downside was the upfront cost despite the long-term investment of an improved building.
Null presented a second option, which would extend the project’s timeline to do every project slowly, but Null did not recommend this plan as it was significantly more expensive.
A third option would reduced the scope of the project, keeping athletics in the same place, moving the CTE building to the annex and building some of the new facilities including a new gym, kitchen and common area.
Although the last option is the cheapest, quickest scenario and preserves the historic nostalgia, Null said it only reduces the costs to $120 million, and the board would inevitably have to expand to the original plan’s specifications.
“We were hoping to find an option like [the third option]that might be a $50 or $60 million savings, truthfully,” Null said. “But that’s just not the reality of what costs are.”
Trustee John Husbands said none of the options included increasing the school’s capacity, which he said the community was confused about.
“We’re renovating CHS because it’s worn out,” Husbands said. “Not to make it bigger, not to keep from building another high school. That’s still coming when the time is right.”
Null said they would continue to debate and consider ideas moving forward. The next regular CISD board meeting is scheduled for June 18 at 6 p.m.