Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Bond or bust (Part 5)

The future of SISD after November 2023 bond election

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Editor’s note: This article is the fifth and final part in a series to find out why Springtown Independent School District’s bond proposals have failed four times in a row. The Tri-County Reporter has interviewed supporters and opponents of the school bond and SISD’s leaders as well as retrieved data about local property taxes and bond elections across the state. This series has covered the history of SISD’s bond elections, the needs at campuses in the district, how property tax bills are deterring voters from approving the bond and the arguments for and against athletic facilities in SISD’s bond proposals. 

SPRINGTOWN — Springtown Independent School District Superintendent Shane Strickland, a self-described optimist, recalled having a sinking feeling leading into the November 2023 bond election.

“Although I was confident, I was worried in the back of my mind,” Strickland said in early December.

Strickland hoped district leaders had done enough to educate the community about the bond proposal. He knew there would be more people coming to vote because of the constitutional amendments election. Even though those amendments included property tax relief, he thought those measures might not have been enough to lessen taxpayers’ burdens.

When the election results were released, Strickland’s instincts proved to be correct as voters rejected SISD’s bond proposal for a fourth time last fall. Passing the bond would have allowed the district to build a new middle school and renovate other campuses to accommodate student enrollment growth.

“The bond process is tiring because you feel like the community doesn't trust you, even though realistically I understand the reasons as far as the property taxes and families feeling strapped in Springtown,” Strickland said. “The last thing I want to do is affect somebody and their family based off of a bond passing and affecting their property taxes in a way that it puts them out of their home, or they have to close their small business.”

Strickland knows people could be experiencing “bond fatigue,” as he calls it. After two bond elections in 2021 and another two in 2023, he suspects that community members may be feeling numb to the issue. He is also concerned about how the bond failures have affected his staff.

“We have teachers that are bond educators that are fighting for the bond, and they're pouring out all this energy for something, and it keeps failing,” he said. “I think it's really discouraging to our staff. And I guess that then increases worry in me about if we’re filling our rooms and our teachers are overwhelmed and you deal with just the day-to-day stuff of teaching a classroom full of kids with different needs and different abilities, and then they're trying to pass a bond and the community is not supporting them. How long are they going to want to stay in Springtown?”

However, the superintendent knew this would be a challenge when he was promoted into his current position at the beginning of last year. He vowed to keep encouraging and fighting for the district’s stakeholders, specifically students and staff.

A couple of months after the November 2023 election, SISD School Board President Rick Beall had his mind set on the future. To him, feeling upset about the outcome of the failed bond elections won’t help the kids who go to school within the district.

“You can wake up and you can be sad, or you can be glad. Either way, you’ve got to keep moving forward,” Beall said. “These kids still have to be educated. We don't have the liberty of turning kids away. We have to educate these kids no matter what, so we want to make sure that they've got the best facilities and the best resources so they can go be successful members of this community.”

So, what is next? The school board did not call for a May bond election by the February deadline. If the board wants to order an election in November, it will have to make that decision in August.

SISD is in a fact-finding stage, and leaders are gathering data about how space is used to ensure efficiency and see what direction the district should take, Beall said.

Strickland pointed out that despite what the projected data may predict, the future is still uncertain.

“The thing, I guess, with student population and the economy and everything else that affects it, we don't have a crystal ball,” he said. “We make estimations, and we try to base our decisions off those estimations.”

Home sales in the area may have slowed down, but Zonda demographic adviser Hudson Huff predicted SISD’s enrollment could amount to more than 4,700 students in about five years and about 5,300 students in 10 years.

During the school board’s Feb. 26 meeting, Huff reported 41 subdivisions are actively being built and about 1,100 vacant lots are ready for development in SISD’s area.

“We do see that there are three future subdivisions, and those have potentially a little over 200 additional lots that can be added over time,” he said.

Huff also mentioned two multifamily developments that could bring about 200 units to the district.

The upside to growth is that the Springtown area is attracting more businesses that can share in the cost of constructing more space for students, a price that is likely to increase.

“The longer that we have to wait to build something, those inflation rates will continue to go up,” Strickland said. “My hope is that as we grow, we start getting more and more businesses here that help take that tax burden off of our community members.”

In terms of new homes, Huff said the attendance zones for Goshen Creek Elementary School and Springtown Elementary School have a lot of activity, more so than the Reno Elementary School zone. Both Strickland and Beall said the elementary school zones will be evaluated to see if adjustments can be made to accommodate growth.

“Are we using our boundaries as well as we should? And that's a thing that we don't want to have to change, but if it is, then we have to do what's best for the kids in the district,” Beall said.

Beall said school board members also want to listen to the community to develop a plan that is satisfactory for everyone.

“We want to present them with a package that they feel like is what's best for Springtown,” he said.

SISD taxpayer Andrew Kloster said he’d like to see the district’s leaders come up with a better plan moving forward, perhaps by saving tax revenue this year and reevaluating in 2025. He also questioned why SISD had changed its bond proposal from building a new elementary school in 2021 to a new middle school in 2023 — a decision that came from meetings with the public in 2022.

“They've had four bond elections in two years, so there's obviously something wrong with their planning. Something is not making sense,” Kloster said. “The last one, it said (about) 57% voted against it (in Parker County). There's definitely lack of communication or lack of expected need for them resolving whatever issues there are with the classrooms. The classrooms are the most important thing, so I think they need to address classrooms to make sure they have enough classrooms for the students.”

From another perspective, SISD alumna and parent Jessica Castro said the school district has already done a lot to inform the public on the growth issues and bond proposals.

“They hold meetings; they invite the public to come to these meetings; they send out emails; they send out everything,” Castro said. “I'm not really sure what else they could do, but I'd be more than happy to talk to anybody if they want us to come up with ideas.”

Former SISD Assistant Superintendent Mike Gilley suggested that having a community advocate may help a future bond effort, a person who isn’t a school district representative who can reach people with different views.

“I think that's what it’s going to take … is to have that kind of investment from your community people,” Gilley said.

Strickland said he’d like to see more voter participation at the polls, especially from parents and families who don’t seem to be always showing up to cast their ballots. The superintendent said there are more than 19,000 registered voters in SISD, but just under 4,000 people in Parker and Wise counties submitted ballots in the district’s November 2023 bond election.

In a way, Castro is correct — there’s only so much SISD can do to pass a bond. Voters have the ultimate say.

“I think if we just continue to outreach and educate those that will listen, that's all we can do,” Strickland said. “Surely, it's in the voters’ hands every time.”