Conroe ISD proposes reduced November bond packages

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After the defeat of Conroe ISD’s $807 million bond package by a 9% margin in May, the CISD board of trustees in August unanimously ordered two bond propositions for inclusion on the November ballot.

The new packages include a $653.57 million proposition for items related to district growth, facility upgrades and safety, and a $23.8 million proposition for turf field conversions at several campuses. CISD officials said the measures would result in no expected tax increase if approved by voters.

South Montgomery County bond project proposals include a systems overhaul at Oak Ridge High School, the addition of a technical education center there, the construction of a new elementary school in the Grand Oaks feeder zone and expansions at both high schools in The Woodlands.

The Woodlands, College Park and Oak Ridge high schools and McCullough Junior High School would also receive turf field conversions if that standalone proposition passes.

CISD officials said they are unlikely to call a third bond election in the event of another “no” vote in November, and would instead implement an internal savings plan consisting of options such as staffing and programming cuts, increased class sizes, hiring and pay raises freezes, tax increases and rezoning if the main package is not approved.

“If not successful this round, I don’t believe May [2020] is an option, and I don’t believe that we think that November of 2020 is an option,” CISD Superintendent Curtis Null said. “There is a point where, if the voters have spoken twice in a row, then we would need to listen and react and find another means to run the school district.”

The new bond packages

After the May election, CISD officials began planning a revised package to go back to voters this fall. Null said district focus groups and community feedback were used to reduce the new bond’s scope while retaining the May package’s essential items.

In stripping down the $807 million May proposition, several district facility projects in Conroe were removed and could now be funded through other district sources. Technology- and transportation-related purchases from the May package were also reduced and would be financed over a shorter time than originally proposed, officials said.

South Montgomery County projects are estimated to cost the same or less than they were in May’s proposition. The price tag for Oak Ridge High’s overhaul dropped around $3 million, and the College Park addition dropped $1.3 million after several projects were reclassified as safety and security expenses, officials said.The new $39.4 million Grand Oaks feeder school, $11.2 million The Woodlands High School addition and $10.5 million south county CTE center were projected at similar costs in the spring.

Two contentious pieces from the May bond were also modified for the district’s November bids. First, many smaller facility improvements some community members viewed as maintenance items—and therefore not worth funding through a bond—were eliminated. To address those needs, the CISD board of trustees approved a new capital maintenance fund in August to pay for smaller future projects.

Secondly, the board removed the conversion of around a dozen athletic fields to artificial turf from its larger package and will leave that potential upgrade as a standalone $23.8 million proposition. CISD board Vice President Skeeter Hubert said the turf concept received equally vocal support and disapproval in the spring, leading the board to separate it from the main bond proposition.

“If it passes, great; if it fails, okay. Either way … let those people vote on that because the $653 million [proposition], that is not a want; that is a need,” Hubert said. “We need these renovations. We need these schools. The kids are coming, and we’ve got to be prepared for them.”

Stacy Kimpel, a parent of students at Ride Elementary and Knox Junior High, said she had also heard mixed community support for the turf conversions in May.

“I think that it got a lot of negative publicity with people who were upset about the fields being ... turf,” she said.

CISD officials also noted the difference in potential effects on local taxpayers between the May and November propositions. The May package was pitched with an expected tax rate increase of $0.01 per $100 valuation in the first year of the bond and up to a $0.03 tax rate hike over the life of the bond. According to CISD, neither November proposition would result in a tax increase due to the smaller dollar amount of the bonds compared to the May package.

CISD Director of Communications Sarah Blakelock said the reduced amount of the bond proposition and creation of a capital maintenance fund will help to ensure that the proposals will not bring about a tax rate increase.

The board of trustees in August lowered the district’s fiscal year 2019-20 tax rate to $1.23 per $100 valuation—4% less than the $1.28 FY 2018-19 adopted rate. The drop includes a $0.09 maintenance and operations tax rate decrease and a $0.04 debt service rate increase.

Community feedback

While the new bond proposals were developed to appeal to voters opposing the May package, members of some local political action committees that opposed the spring package have said they are not entirely satisfied with the district board’s revisions.

Bill O’Sullivan, a board member of the conservative Texas Patriots PAC, which opposed the May bond, said the organization generally supports the local school system. However, he said the contents and formation of the May proposal led to Texas Patriots’ first-ever call for a “no” vote on a CISD bond.

“We looked at it as a mess, the way the whole thing was put together. It was rushed,” he said. “Bonds are supposed to be long-term investments mainly for the construction of big projects. And we saw a lot of things in there which weren’t that, and we expressed that to Dr. Null.”

In August, Texas Patriots members said the PAC was still deliberating its stance on the November propositions.

Cody Bartlett, a member of CISD’s planning committee for the May bond who campaigned with the Community for Conroe ISD’s Future PAC in the spring, said he believes more community members are now likely to support the November bond.

“I have seen an increase in community engagement given the disappointing result this past May and expect to see more community members become educated on the new package and ultimately supportive,” he said.

Brandon Rottinhaus, a University of Houston political science professor, said referendums are often the only viable option for districts to address immediate concerns such as a steady rise in annual enrollment.

“School districts are significantly dependent on local money to fund growth or extra initiatives,” he said. “That’s probably the hardest thing that any school district has to do, is to locate new revenue. Most school districts are stuck in terms of funding, at least in the short term.”

May’s $807 million bond proposal eclipsed the district’s $527 million 2008 bond and $487 million 2015 bond, both of which passed with more than 60% voter approval. While touted as a necessary investment in the district’s ever-growing student population and aging facilities, district officials said the May proposal’s record size may have deterred some voters.

“While not out of line with districts our size, it certainly was a number that I think startled many folks,” Null said following the spring election.

The May bond election ended with a 54.5% majority voting against the package, which district officials and local partisan groups attributed to the bond’s composition, low county voter turnout and the campaigning efforts of political action committees that opposed the proposition.

“You’ve got an off-cycle election, and the only people who are voting are passionately against more spending. That balance tends to favor the people who show up,” Rottinghaus said.

Contingency planning

The district’s chief concern—growth by an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 students annually over the next decade—is one of the driving factors behind the board’s contingency plans if the main bond does not pass, Null said.

A draft contingency plan released in August includes possible tax hikes, the elimination of the new capital maintenance fund, staffing cuts and a hiring freeze. Effects on students could include increased class sizes, a delay to state-mandated full-day pre-K, decreased programming and rezoning.

If Proposition A fails, Null said the cuts could be required to address projected shortfalls of $25.2 million for the 2020-21 school year and more than $30 million in 2021-22. With a third bond unlikely in 2020, the board would move to implement changes before next school year.

Null said staffing cuts and future pay raise freezes would be among the likely first steps following an unsuccessful bond election as nearly 90% of CISD’s budget is dedicated to salary-related items. Officials said fewer teachers on staff would also result in larger class sizes.

“If we don’t have new schools and new teachers but we still have these kids coming in, we have to put them in classrooms that will be bigger than what The Woodlands and what Conroe ISD has become accustomed to,” Hubert said.

Hubert said the potential rezoning could affect students’ paths through the district as well. A draft rezoning map released alongside the board’s contingency plan features shifted attendance patterns for some children in The Woodlands, College Park and Oak Ridge high school feeder zones. Null said the district might also lose its “pure feeder” junior high structure in which all students at individual junior high schools go on to attend the same high school.

Null said the contingency plan was released in August to inform voters of CISD’s uncertain path forward from a possible bond rejection, which is now less clear than the previous solution of calling for another election.

“If this is the plan that ultimately the community chooses, then we just want to make sure everyone is aware, and we’re very sensitive to the fact that we don’t want to be fearmongers or threatening,” he said. “What we have there is the list of things that could be done. As far as how much, and would all those things be done, likely not.”

By 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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