Conroe ISD $807M school bond planned for May 2019 ballot

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As one of the fastest- growing public school districts in the state of Texas, Conroe ISD is planning for the future. The board of trustees approved the call Jan. 15 for a $807 million bond to be on the May 4 election ballot.

Along with new schools, upgrades to existing facilities and districtwide improvements, CISD officials project the bond will bring increased property tax rates.

CISD Superintendent Curtis Null said the bond referendum will address the district’s growing student population.

According to data from a Population and Survey Analysts demographics study released mid-December, CISD has grown by more than 15,000 students over the past decade, and it estimated the district will reach 76,000 students by 2028.

“There are many substantial projects [on the bond package], but I think if you just look purely at a financial investment, you will see that this package leans very heavily on new schools, and growth and sustainability at existing schools,” Null said.

Null said CISD plans to tackle districtwide issues such as safety and security, improving the longevity of campuses and expanding existing schools. The bond would also fund three new elementary schools, one new junior high school, facility upgrades and a new career and technical education building.

The bond package tackles growth in specific portions of South Montgomery County.

PASA data showed
27.7 percent of the population—17,404 students—currently reside in The Woodlands Township.

As for proposed changes to the South Montgomery County area, the district intends to target continued growth in the new Grand Oaks High School feeder zone with a new elementary school, as well as upgrade older campuses such as Oak Ridge High School.

Proposed projects

Among new construction proposed, a $39.4 million elementary school is proposed in the Grand Oaks feeder zone, currently named Flex 22, which would have a capacity of 1,000 students, said Easy Foster, CISD’s director of planning and construction.

According to the PASA report, new housing occupancies south of the Grand Parkway—where Grand Oaks is located—is projected to increase by 1,255 between 2018-23. Furthermore, the report stated approximately 6,000 acres of land remain undeveloped in the area, leaving room for additional development.

While the elementary school’s location has not been decided, Foster said the estimated construction timeline for the project will be February 2022-July 2023.

If voters approve the bond, the district will begin work on designs, and it could begin construction on some bond projects as early as 2019,
Foster said.

The bond package also includes funds for new elementary schools in the feeder zones for Conroe and Caney Creek high schools as well as a new junior high campus in the Caney Creek High School feeder zone. It also includes $20 million in future land purchases for schools and facilities.

The district has prioritized bond projects based on indicators such as districtwide growth and immediate and future needs, Foster said.

The bond package also includes roughly $24.6 million in safety and security upgrades, which Null said could include installing more secure vestibules and security cameras across the district.

“Safety and security is a moving target—we learn more every day about how to help our schools become more secure,” Null said.

Expansions

The bond package also includes improvements to other The Woodlands-area schools, including Oak Ridge, The Woodlands and The Woodlands College Park high schools.

Oak Ridge High School’s proposed $47.6 million overhaul includes upgrades to mechanical systems, an addition of a career and technical education center, and cosmetic upgrades to facilities. Null said the campus overhaul includes additional classrooms to alleviate overcrowding at the school.

The Woodlands and College Park high schools, on the other hand, will each see investments of $11.2 million, which would begin to eliminate the need for portable buildings at the campuses, Foster said.

The Woodlands High School is also set to gain a robotics lab and additional science classrooms, he said.

“With this addition, the campus will not only receive space for in-demand programs, but—when combined with the projected enrollment decline—the reliance on portables will decrease significantly over time,” he said.

Meanwhile, College Park High School is set to gain 10 classrooms. The timeline for both projects would be  September 2020-July 2021.

Districtwide, CISD hopes to fund field conversions from grass to turf on all high school athletic fields in the district, with the exception of the new Grand Oaks High School, which opened August 2018 and already has turf fields. Foster said the $23.2 million investment will require less maintenance over time as well as allow more use of the fields.

“Changing their athletic facilities to a work surface that is not nearly as weather-dependent will be huge for the programs there,” Foster said.

The financial effects

Voters have approved three bond elections in CISD since 2000, which totaled more than $1.29 billion—in 2004, 2008 and 2015. However, the May bond package of $807 million will feature the district’s largest bond issue to date.

Using bonds to fund new facilities is not unusual in a fast-growth district like CISD, according to the Fast Growth School Coalition. Fast-growth districts have more than 2,500 students in total enrollment and have grown by at least 10 percent over the past five years, according to the group.

CISD is also one of the 20 largest districts in Texas, and it had the second highest percentage increase for student enrollment growth for 2017-18, at 3.04 percent, according to PASA data.

FGSC Executive Director Guy Sconzo said districts across the state—including CISD—rely heavily on property taxes to pay for school bonds due to a lack of financing from the state.

“It really is the only way to keep pace with the growth,” Sconzo said.

Sconzo said state funds for school districts have dropped dramatically in recent years, leaving local taxpayers to fill the gap through property taxes.

The current property tax rate for CISD residents is $1.28 per $100 valuation. CISD Chief Financial Officer Darrin Rice said the district’s financial advisers project a 1-cent property tax rate increase for the 2019-20 year, with a maximum of a 3-cent increase over the four-year life of the bond.

If the tax rate is increased by 3 cents over a three-year period, Rice said a resident within CISD’s boundaries with a home value of $300,000 can expect an annual property tax bill increase of $82.50.

However, he said there is no guarantee the district will have to increase the property tax rate beyond the 1-cent increase.

“In the past when we’ve set up a bond referendum, [such as]this last one, we said it’ll cost us 1 cent, and it didn’t cost us any,” Rice said.

When the 2018 District Facilities Planning Committee brought the bond proposal to trustees Dec. 18, it was for a $827 million package. However, Null said the committee re-evaluated costs and chose to allocate money from the general fund balance to pay for the projects that were reduced or removed from the package.

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Kelly Schafler
Kelly Schafler is a reporter for the Conroe and Montgomery edition of Community Impact, covering public education, city government, development, businesses, local events and all things community-related. Before she joined Community Impact as a full-time reporter in June 2017, Kelly wrote business and dining features for CI as a freelance journalist.
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