CISD learning from failure: District considers changes to defeated bond package ahead of possible fall vote

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With the failure of May’s $807 million bond proposal still fresh in mind, Conroe ISD officials said they are rethinking their strategy as they consider putting forward a revised bond.

The bond went to the polls May 4, earning 6,945 votes in favor and 8,314 votes against it, or 45.51% in favor and 54.49% against. Now, CISD officials said they are deciding whether to revise the current bond in time for a November election, streamlining or removing certain projects, or waiting until 2020 to propose a completely new bond—which could put school programs and teacher pay at risk.

Opponents of the bond said they believe it contained superfluous projects and could raise tax rates. Bill O’Sullivan, the treasurer of the Montgomery County-based Texas Patriots Political Action Committee, said he believes the district rushed the bond to the ballot.

“The haphazard way it was put together, none of it made any sense,” O’Sullivan said.

The major projects and new construction proposed in the bond—including four new schools, several maintenance projects and numerous expansions—are all on hold, CISD Superintendent Curtis Null said. Pressing concerns, such as failing roofs or temperature systems, will need to be paid for by other means.

“We’ll have to adjust our plans for how to meet our needs in the future, but I’m confident that we will find a great plan moving forward,” Null said.

District needs

According to CISD, the bond is a direct response to growth. The district is the 11th largest in Texas and has grown by 15,000 students in 10 years. CISD’s enrollment grew 5% over last year from 59,489 to 62,866 students and is expected to grow another 11% by 2023.

One of the largest items on the bond, projected to cost $146 million, was Phase 2 of Conroe High School’s expansion, which would have funded new administrative, classroom and athletic additions.

The bond also would have funded converting Booker T. Washington Junior High into a downtown Conroe high school. Although on hold, Briana Barrera, president of the Washington parent-teacher organization, said the need behind the project is still there.

“We would need the room, not just in our area but in the general area of Conroe ISD, to accommodate the amount we’re growing,” Barrera said.

CISD has until Aug. 19 to decide whether to put a new bond on the November ballot. CISD board President Datren Williams said the district reviewed the original bond’s shortcomings and immediate needs for the upcoming school year at a May 14 board meeting. Null said the district is setting up workshops in the coming weeks to gather community feedback.

“There were specific projects that I know some people had concerns with, and they’ll get special consideration moving forward as far as if they would be included in future projects or not,” Null said.

Opposition concerns

Nearly all precincts in the Conroe area voted against the bond. Williams pointed to low voter turnout as a potential factor in the bond’s failure.

According to the Montgomery County Board of Elections, 5.9% of 260,147 eligible voters cast ballots in the bond election. For the 2015 CISD bond that passed, 9.7% of 286,310 eligible voters voted.

In general, around two-thirds of school district bond proposals pass, according to Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University who said he believes CISD’s bond suffered from a bad campaign.

“I thought the messaging was wrong in the sense that the district spoke to a constituency as [if]they are responsible children, teachers, administrators,” Stein said. “The people voting really wanted to know, ‘How is this going to shore up our property taxes, or better yet our property values, in the future?’”

CISD said the bond would increase tax rates by $0.01 in the first year and $0.03 over the life of the bond.

Montgomery County resident Lee Gurley said in an email he opposed the bond because in his opinion, the area’s growth should contribute more than enough to taxing entities without raising rates.

“In addition to new taxpayers moving to the area, property tax valuations are increasing—my home is up 10% this year,” Gurley said. “Therefore, tax revenues should be increasing substantially for CISD and other taxing entities.”

O’Sullivan questioned why this bond proposed less classroom space than the $487 million bond approved in 2015. Maintenance work was a major cost included in this year’s bond, including equipment repairs for plumbing and electrical work. More than $88 million of the bond was planned to extend facility lifetimes, while more than $62 million was set for renovations.

“They’re a few hundred million dollars behind in maintenance, and that falls on the old administration,” O’Sullivan said. “I think they let it get to that point because they didn’t want to face the tax rate increase.”

But CISD Chief Financial Officer Darrin Rice said there was confusion about maintenance and capital expenditures, as many buildings are 23-40 years old.

“Maintenance is repairing a roof; capital expenditure is [when]the roof has met the end of its life and you’re extending the life of the building when you add a new roof,” Rice said.

Historically, Null said the district has used bonds to pay for maintenance to keep the tax rate as low as possible, but that might not be possible anymore.

“I do believe they will have more conversations in the future about potentially a change to our tax rate in order to address those needs on an annual basis instead of financing them through bonds,” Null said.

Looking ahead

Williams said strictly prioritizing the most important projects is the takeaway from the May election, but Barrera said it is hard as a parent to see any of the projects as negotiable.

“If you can’t build a new campus, you obviously have to add, which is still a little cheaper than a whole new campus,” Barrera said. “Safety and security is really top priority.”

In the immediate future, if the board waits until 2020 or if a second vote in November fails, the district could make drastic changes such as pay freezes and program cuts, Williams said.

At a June 4 workshop meeting, Null said the board might have to rezone several feeder zones if a November bond fails, including the expansion of the College Park High School and Oak Ridge High School feeder zones, along with the shrinking of The Woodlands High School and Conroe High School zones.

Null said the rezoning is not ideal, but if a November bond is not successful, the district will not move forward with additions to The Woodlands and College Park high schools. Whether voters are for or against a future bond, Barrera said she hopes they will have a better perspective as they go to the polls.

“The people who don’t understand it are probably people who don’t have children in Conroe ISD,” Barrera said. “Look at the bigger picture, and try to put yourself in the position as though you were a parent with students in Conroe ISD and how it’s going to better their time at Conroe ISD.”

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Andy Li
Originally from Boone, North Carolina, Andy Li is a graduate of East Carolina University with degrees in Communication with a concentration in journalism and Political Science. While in school, he worked as a performing arts reporter, news, arts and copy editor and a columnist at the campus newspaper, The East Carolinian. He also had the privilege to work with NPR’s Next Generation Radio, a project for student journalists exploring radio news. Moving to Houston in May 2019, he now covers the Conroe Independent School District, Montgomery City Council and transportation.
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