While voters in each district have approved multimillion-dollar bond referendums since 2015, officials with each district said another bond package is likely once residential growth strains campus capacities in the coming years.
“It’s something that you have to be in front of instead of waiting until we’ve already exceeded capacity at whichever location and then going out for a bond [referendum],” said Erich Morris, MISD assistant superintendent of operations. “We have to project these things.”
Growing enrollments mean more facilities, district officials said. However, the state’s share of total school facilities’ debt has dwindled from 45 percent to 6 percent since 2000, said Guy Sconzo, executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition. Paired with fast growth, this leaves districts increasingly looking to bond funds for school construction, he said.
Tomball ISD—considered a fast-growth district—anticipates breaking ground soon on its first round of projects from the district’s $275 million bond referendum approved by voters last November, including one elementary and one junior high school campus, officials said. Additionally, MISD wrapped up its largest bond-funded projects this fall from a 2015 referendum totaling $92 million, including the debut of Bear Branch and Magnolia intermediate schools.
“The problem is for the [fast-growing] Tomballs and the Magnolias of the state, truly the only ability they have to raise funds for new campuses and renovations of existing campuses is to go to their voters and ask voters to pay a higher local tax rate to pay for that debt, because they’re not going to be eligible for state funding,” Sconzo said.
Planned bond projects
To accommodate projected growth, the Magnolia and Tomball ISDs boards of trustees called for bond referendums in 2015 and 2017, respectively.
MISD celebrated the opening of its bond-funded intermediate campuses in August. MISD budgeted $54.5 million to construct the two campuses, which enroll fifth- and sixth-grade students. Previously, fifth-graders attended elementary schools, and sixth-graders attended sixth-grade schools.
“The biggest benefit is removing the fifth grade from all of our elementary campuses, and of course removing that fifth grade creates capacity at all eight elementary campuses,” Morris said. “It’s going to help us for many years by creating capacity at each elementary.”
Communications Director Denise Meyers said MISD has also seen more growth at its secondary schools.
“When you look at where the growth is going to happen, it’s going to be at that intermediate [and] junior high level, and that’s probably where you’re going to see the next bond happen is at the secondary level,” she said.
Morris said the district begins considering the need for new schools once campuses approach 85 percent capacity.
“If we maintain the anticipated growth that we’re going to have, and, in particular, if it exceeds those projections [a bond is possible], but our current capacity looks good for several years,” Morris said.
TISD Chief Administrative Officer Chris Trotter said the district targets 115 percent capacity for determining when new schools might be needed. Trotter said TISD pursued a 2017 bond package because Willow Wood Junior High School was forecast to exceed 115 percent capacity in upcoming years.
In addition to new facilities, the 2017 bond projects will accommodate projected enrollment growth from 2018-22,
according to district information. A $31 million elementary school to relieve Wildwood, a $68.4 million junior high school to relieve Willow Wood and a $48.3 million expansion to Tomball Memorial High School are planned.
The district is targeting an August 2020 opening for the two new schools located along Cypress-Rosehill Road.
Previously, TISD constructed Creekview and Wildwood elementary schools as well as Oakcrest Intermediate School with funds from its 2013 bond referendum totaling $160 million to keep up with growth in the Northpointe and The Woodlands areas, Trotter said.
“With what we did in 2013 and what we did now in 2017, we should be good for five to six years,” Trotter said. “Now, would we call a bond a little bit earlier? Absolutely, because we don’t know where the fast growth [will come first].”
Preparing for growth
Trotter said he is following growth patterns along the approximately 4-mile stretch of the Grand Parkway within TISD boundaries—which includes the Rosehill Reserve subdivision—as well as in the north end of the district near the Woodtrace community on Hwy. 249. The fast-growth areas served by 2013 bond projects are nearing build-out, which shifts the district’s focus to growth patterns elsewhere, he said.
“We’re watching the sale of land up and down [Hwy.] 99, because if it all came in housing, then we’re going to get a huge population growth,” Trotter said. “But if it comes in commercial, then it’s a plus on the tax base.”
In addition to the large Woodtrace and Rosehill Reserve communities, Trotter said he is watching the Cherry Street area where a series of homes are slated.
With residential development ongoing in virtually all areas of the district, Trotter said he foresees enrollment growth continuing for years to come.
Inside district boundaries, there are more than 3,400 future lots—those planned or in development—as of the second quarter of 2018, according to Metrostudy, a market research firm.
According to enrollment projections from the district, TISD’s enrollment is set to grow to more than 19,800 students by the 2021-22 school year.
Morris said he expects MISD’s enrollment to accelerate once road and future residential developments are complete like the 3,000-acre Audubon Magnolia Development on FM 1488 and the multi-agency project to extend Hwy. 249 from Tomball to Navasota.
“We anticipate that the growth will be greater after about the fourth year in about the 2022-23 school year,” Morris said. “It’s not going to slow down for many, many years.”
MISD’s enrollment is set to top 14,000 students by 2022-23, according to a Spring 2018 report from Templeton Demographics, a research firm.
More than 9,600 future lots lie within district boundaries with a bulk of the housing activity concentrated near the eastern border of the district, according to Metrostudy.
“MISD has a strong chance to become a fast-growth district in the very near future,” said Kristi Baker, secretary for the board of trustees. “We want to be prepared for the students who are coming so everyone can hit the ground running when they get here.”
Funding new facilities
For TISD, Trotter said construction of another elementary school near the city of Tomball is possible within 10 years, with the board likely calling a bond referendum in five to six years.
While Morris said MISD could see the need for additional intermediate or junior high school campuses in the future, a time frame for a future bond referendum is unknown.
If eligible, school districts across the state can tap into state funding programs for assistance to fund school construction, such as an existing debt allotment—state funding to pay off bond debt on the basis of a district’s property wealth—and an instructional facilities allotment—limited to property-poor districts, Sconzo said.
However, as most districts meeting fast-growth criteria are considered property wealthy and therefore ineligible to receive facilities funding, districts are forced to look to bond referendums to fund construction of schools, he said.
The state’s share of total school facilities’ debt fell from 45 percent in 2000 to 6 percent this past year, Sconzo said.
Since 2000, voters in TISD have approved $731.4 million in bond referendums, and MISD voters have approved $222 million in bond funds, according to district information.
While bond funds can be used for new construction, more staffing and maintenance are additional costs for already-tight budgets. As local property tax revenue increases for districts, the state’s share of overall funding for the districts decreases, based on the state funding formula.
Morris previously said state funding for MISD’s daily operations fell from about 50.5 percent in FY 2011-12 to about 35 percent in FY 2018-19.
In TISD, state funding dropped from 31 percent to 14 percent in that time, according to budget information.
To prepare for student growth with little state funding, Chief Financial Officer Jim Ross said TISD has set aside $8 million for opening new schools.
“The cost impact is typically in the first year and a half, and it is estimated at least $4 million will be needed for opening the new junior high and elementary [schools],” Ross said.
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