Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Bond or bust (Part 1)

Part one of a series exploring SISD’s failed bond elections

Posted

SPRINGTOWN — Longtime Springtown school board member Tootie Hall provoked the Springtown City Council to chuckle when she gave a brief update on the school district’s quest for a winning bond election.

Hall represented the school board at the Jan. 25 meeting in honor of Mayor Greg Hood’s proclamation of School Board Recognition Month. While she had their attention, Hall addressed SISD’s inability to pass a bond election, saying the school board is evaluating the district’s situation and how to proceed. She ended her remarks by saying, “There will be another bond, so start saving your quarters,” which summoned the hum of laughter from council members.

Not much seems to have changed since Springtown Independent School District’s last failed bond election in November, the fourth installment in a series of ballot proposals rejected by voters. From the perspective of school district leaders, campuses still need relief from overcrowding caused by enrollment growth, but some voters are still wary of approving any measure that would increase their property tax bills.

Hall said she made her comment to the council because she doesn’t see another way forward other than to keep asking voters to approve a bond proposal, though the proposition may need to be split up into pieces.

“We’re still grasping for straws,” Hall said. “I mean, we are out of room.”

The question isn’t whether the school board can call another bond election, but rather, what will it take for voters to approve it?

Since December, The Tri-County Reporter has sought to find out why SISD’s bond proposals have failed not once but four times in a row. To answer this question, the Reporter interviewed multiple people — including SISD Superintendent Shane Strickland, school board members, bond supporters and opponents — and requested data on local property taxes and results of school bond elections in the state.

To best convey its findings, the Reporter has broken this story into parts. Part one of this series will examine the history of Springtown’s bond election efforts.

In May 2021, SISD had its first of four failed bond elections. The school board called for a $38.5 million bond election to build a new elementary school, add classrooms at the middle and intermediate schools and expand the high school’s welding shop, according to an April 15, 2021, edition of The Springtown Epigraph. About 60% of Parker County voters in the Springtown school district rejected this proposal, which would have raised tax rates by almost 12 cents.

The Epigraph also reported that SISD’s enrollment was 3,674 in January 2021, which at the time was the highest January enrollment since 2007. Now the district’s enrollment numbers are more than 4,000.

“Across the district, we are already planning to add teachers at every elementary grade level as we prepare for next year,” former SISD Superintendent Mike Kelley said in the May 6, 2021, edition of the Epigraph.

In the fall of 2021, SISD put the same proposal out for a vote again, except this time the cost of the projects ballooned to $41.5 million. However, a successful bond election would have only increased the tax rate by about a half-cent compared to the previous year.

Again, the bond proposal failed to pass, this time by about 51% in Parker County and 54% in Wise County. 

After failing at the polls twice in a year, the school board opted to not call for elections in 2022. Instead, the district hosted multiple meetings to educate locals on the district’s needs and get feedback to form a new plan. From there, the district found support for building a new middle school and reconfiguring the district’s campuses instead of constructing a new elementary school.

In February 2023, the board decided to call for an election to fund the new proposal to build a new middle school, convert the current middle school into a ninth-grade center and turn the intermediate school into the district’s fourth elementary campus. In this plan, there wouldn’t be a need for an intermediate school as fifth graders would be taught at the elementary campuses, and sixth graders would go to Springtown Middle School.

The May 2023 bond proposal was estimated to cost $120.78 million, which was tens of millions of dollars more expensive than the 2021 plans. Building a middle school generally costs more than an elementary school, and district officials would need to buy more land to accommodate the new middle school campus. Without considering the impact of increased property appraisals, the district’s tax rate was projected to increase by about 29 cents with a successful bond election.

Although voters failed to pass the May 2023 bond, the election was close in Parker County where the percentage of “no” votes didn’t reach 51% of the total ballots cast, and more people in the county voted on the bond than during the previous two elections. With Wise County’s results taken into consideration, the bond failed by only 57 votes.

In August 2023, SISD called for another bond election with a proposal almost identical to the one in May. The district hired a new financial adviser and architect, and because of the Texas Legislature’s required tax compression, SISD’s tax rate would have been about a cent less than the rate for the previous year after a winning bond election.

But SISD still didn’t capture the votes it needed to win the election in November. Instead, SISD voters in Parker and Wise counties definitively told the district “no” at the ballot box. More people in both counties came to the polls (which could be attributed to the constitutional amendments election that was also on the ballot in November) and soundly rejected the bond proposal by about 56% in Parker County and about 60% in Wise County.

“I don't know that people truly see the need, especially those that are not visiting our campuses,” SISD Superintendent Shane Strickland said about why the bond hasn’t passed. “They don't feel the impact that it has inside the buildings.”

The community meetings in 2022 had a decent number of attendees, but leading up to the November 2023 election, the district’s informational meetings were sparsely attended.

Strickland theorized that the district may be reaching people who already are bond supporters at meetings when they need to attract opposed or questioning voters. But getting them to show up is harder said than done.

“We had lists of people that we would call in, invite them to these meetings, and a lot of them would say they're going to come and then just never come,” he said.

School districts in Poolville, Decatur and Bridgeport also had failing bond elections in November, but Azle ISD — which Strickland pointed out has more businesses and corporations that pay local taxes than Springtown — was able to pass a bond election last fall.

Despite the view on the local level, most 2023 school bond elections in Texas had more in common with Azle than Springtown and other nearby school districts. Of the 203 school bond elections that took place last year, 150 (74%) passed at least one proposition while 53 (26%) failed, according to the Municipal Advisory Council of Texas. This trend is still consistent when broken down between the May 2023 and the November 2023 bond elections in Texas. The Municipal Advisory Council of Texas reports that 80% of May bond elections were successful while 63% of November bond elections were successful.

Strickland estimated that it’s been since 2008 since SISD last passed a bond election. Voters approved the school district’s use of $35 million to build Goshen Creek Elementary School on Pojo Road, Porcupine Stadium, the baseball/softball complex, additional classrooms and a band hall at the high school, classrooms and a restroom at Springtown Middle School and renovations for safety at the intermediate school.

The previous bond proposal in 2005 only received partial favor. Voters approved major improvements at each campus but shot down propositions for a new elementary school and a sports complex. Of course, the voters changed their minds about these proposals in 2008.

“I believe the community has sent a clear message to the students in Springtown that education is important,” former Superintendent Andrea Hungerford said in the May 14, 2008, edition of the Epigraph. “All facets of education prepare students as our future leaders.”

In that previous Epigraph article, Hungerford talks about wanting to get rid of “unsightly portables,” overcrowding at Springtown Elementary School and the need for more restrooms — all of which have been discussed leading up to SISD’s most recent bond elections. The 2008 bond election was reported to have included a tax increase, but the district also had access to state funds to help pay for the debt.

Mike Gilley, a former assistant superintendent and principal for SISD, recalled most of the bonds passing when he worked for the district. He described the 2008 election, specifically, as a great success for the district.

“It was just a great economic time for us and (we) got everything really at a reasonable price,” Gilley said. “We kind of got everything we wanted and (were) able to pay for it.”

But 2008 prices aren’t the same as they are now. Gilley estimated the price of the stadium, baseball/softball complex, track and added bus barn parking alone was about $17 million, “and now, $17 million wouldn’t even touch trying to construct the same thing.”

Gilley doesn’t remember much opposition to the 2008 bond since it was understood that the facilities were inadequate compared to the district’s size. He pointed out that most of the district’s campuses were constructed before 2001.

“We can add to, glam over (I guess you might say) some things, but there are such things as plumbing, wiring … space needs, that have to be met and/or overcome,” Gilley said.

Stay tuned for the next part of “Bond or bust” in next week's paper.