Conroe ISD eyes November for new bond referendum

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Three and a half years after approving a $487 million bond package by more than a 2-to-4 margin, Conroe ISD voters in May rejected the district’s latest $807 million bond proposal and prompted officials to begin planning for a new bond package to be voted on this November.

Major project proposals from the bond package are now on hold, including renovations and additions at several schools in south Montgomery County. And with many CISD facilities progressing through their

life cycles—over one-third of the district’s more than 60 campuses were built before 1990—some capital improvements may be set back as well.

The CISD board of trustees held a workshop after the election May 14 to discuss the failed bond and the importance of passing a new package this year. Given voter feedback, district officials said they hope a fresh round of planning can bring together a wider range of community members to avoid the significant consequences of a second unsuccessful bond election.

“What they have to do now is go back and probably resize the bond asking,” said Robert Stein, an elections analyst and political science professor at Rice University. “The idea here is once you mess up, once you have a bond defeated, it really gets hard to come back.”

Contentious election

The May 4 election saw 54.5% of votes cast against the district’s largest-ever bond proposal, a tighter spread than the November 2015 election in which 69% of voters favored that bond. This year’s bond election also saw more than a 40% decrease in voter turnout since 2015’s election.

A majority of votes against the bond came from outside south Montgomery County, north of FM 1488 and east of the West Fork San Jacinto River. Only one voting precinct there voted in favor of the bond, with three total votes, and one precinct in Conroe split evenly. In The Woodlands area, 10 precincts voted for the bond while eight opposed it.

May’s bond drew attention from several organized groups leading up to the election, including political action committees on both sides of the issue. The Texas Patriots PAC, a Montgomery County-based Tea Party organization, pushed back against the proposal after backing previous local bonds due to concerns about its development and contents.

Texas Patriots Treasurer Bill O’Sullivan said the PAC had doubts about the bond due to the district holding the election in the spring of a non-election year, which he believes was an attempt to use an expected low turnout to increase the influence of pro-CISD votes. He said Texas Patriots also opposed the bond for its inclusion of less planned classroom space than the 2015 package despite its larger size. He also said the PAC regarded some bond items as general maintenance, which it felt should be funded through CISD’s budget rather than debt.

“Going forward, you’re going to have to define what is legitimate to go on a bond,” O’Sullivan said. “The way it was done, the haphazard way it was put together, none of it made any sense.”

According to CISD, its board has historically chosen to use general funds to pay off debt rather than for maintenance projects to keep its tax rate low, opting instead to finance larger maintenance projects and technology purchases—both pieces of the 2019 proposal—with short-term bonds. District officials said CISD chose a spring election because the four-year time frame of many 2015 bond projects ran its course and to address its ongoing growth as projected in a 2018 demographic study.

O’Sullivan said Texas Patriots sent out thousands of mailers and promoted its stance on social media this spring, a strategy the group successfully used in past elections. Many of the PAC’s preferred political candidates won recent elections in the area, and it opposed a county road bond in spring 2015, which failed. The Patriots then backed a revised bond, which passed that fall.

“This is the first school bond that we’ve opposed, so we’re not an automatic no. And right now, we’re very willing to talk to them,” O’Sullivan said of CISD.

Bill Brenza, who produces county-focused political programming and worked with the Children’s Hope PAC, which also advocated against the 2019 bond, said this year’s process was “night and day” compared to the district’s 2015 bond, and he said he hopes to support a revised package this fall.

“Myself and the group that I’m with are not anti-education, we’re not anti-children, we’re not anti-bond,” Brenza said. “I supported and voted for the last CISD bond. We just felt like this particular bond that was put out was flawed in a number of ways.”

Nelda Blair, a resident of The Woodlands and former chair of the township’s board of directors, said she participated in several informational community events regarding the election that saw mostly positive feedback toward the bond. Blair also noted the increased local resistance to this school bond, and believes the district itself could have improved its marketing to voters as well.

“When we would have those meetings and they would hear those details, everyone, to a person, was very excited about it in a positive way,” she said. “I do think there were some mistakes made. There always are. Politics is such a moving target. It’s so very hard to pinpoint how to do things correctly, [but]I think the bond failed because of the opposition.”

Loss of local projects

CISD officials said a driving factor behind the 2019 bond was district growth, with 15,000 new students having joined CISD in the past decade and with thousands more expected in the coming years. Included in the 2019 package were four new schools and several improvements to existing facilities—plans which may now be reduced, delayed or shelved.

“[Some critical needs items] will continue to move forward, but as far as any new construction and those big projects, those will all be on hold,” CISD Superintendent Curtis Null said after the election.

In south Montgomery County, one of the most significant bond projects would have been the first phase of an overhaul to Oak Ridge High School, estimated at $47.6 million. The overhaul would also have come with the promise of a second phase of significant renovations, similar to Conroe High School’s upgrades through the 2015 bond. That facility was anticipating the second round of major work through the latest bond package, which is now shelved.

Bryan Fowler is an Oak Ridge feeder zone resident and member of the pro-bond Community for Conroe ISD PAC and CISD Facility Planning Committee, which developed the bond. At an April Oak Ridge North city council meeting, Fowler said Oak Ridge High’s dated infrastructure and appearance could prove detrimental for the city.

“I can tell you that developers are going to want to see that high school look better than it looks right now before they want to start pouring money into this community,” Fowler said.

In The Woodlands, bond money would have gone toward new classroom construction at both The Woodlands and College Park high schools, both of which now operate over capacity. Some local elementary and intermediate schools would have also received capacity upgrades. With crowding an issue at some The Woodlands-area campuses, portable classrooms have been used to address a lack of in-school space. Blair said the bond could have mitigated some facilities’ needs for portables as an increasing county population continues to grow CISD’s student body.

“If we’re already in need and we don’t pass a bond issue to take care of that, where are we going to be over the next 5-10 years as we start growing like that?” she said.

Building a new bond

In the wake of the May election, CISD board President Datren Williams said the district is planning to create a new bond for a November election. He also said undesirable options, such as hiring and pay freezes, programming cuts, and rezoning for school attendance and busing, may be examined if voters reject a second proposal this year.

“No one wants to cause any kind of disruption to our kids, to our family members, to the district at large, but ultimately these decisions are complicated and have to be made,” he said. “Before, we were very, very careful not to give the community the impression that we were fear-mongering … but that is the true reality of things.”

CISD Chief Financial Officer Darrin Rice said the 2019 bond process may prompt adjustments to district financial practices, including a review of its tax rate or the establishment of a new maintenance fund to address some of the objections to funding capital improvement projects with a bond.

Rice also noted if a new bond is not developed, or if another were to fail, the district may need to make “drastic changes” related to its operations.

District officials said they expect the new bond would be a reworked version of the spring proposal, adjusted based on community feedback. A November bond would have to be packaged and announced by mid-August. Williams said the district hopes to foster a more collaborative planning process and to involve the local critics of the failed bond.

“What ultimately we’re trying to do is involve more folks to the table as opposed to hearing folks continuously give us reasons why they don’t want the bond. What are the solutions as opposed to complaints?” he said. “We don’t want to just shove something down the taxpayers’ throat.”

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