The current ECISD Bond Committee is the third bond committee on which I’ve served. In 2017 I was a part of the committee that brought forth the $291 million bond proposal that was rejected by voters 62% to 38%. In committee (and at the ballot box) I voted against this proposal. The 2017 bond would have built a new high school, converted Ector back to a high school, built a new middle school, spent $27 million on technology upgrades and completed around $30 million in improvements to a number of campuses.
In 2018, I again served on a bond committee that morphed into the TRE committee. The plan brought forward from this committee was a proposal to voters to voluntarily increase our state mandated maximum tax rate for maintenance and operations from $1.04 to $1.17. It is important to note that this tax increase – which yielded over $18 million in additional revenue in year one – was not a one year increase but a permanent increase in taxes that continues year after year. It’s also important to note that, as property values have risen sharply in the years since the TRE was passed, the revenue brought in by this tax increase has also increased.
The promises made by the school district during the TRE election was that roughly half of the extra TRE revenue would be used to support staff raises (ongoing), to purchase new buses (ongoing), and pay the insurance deductibles left over from the hail storm (a one time amount of approximately $9 million). Because this tax increase was permanent there was also an understanding that the TRE would continue to support staff salaries AND provide the ongoing funding we needed for bus replacements and major maintenance needs to keep our facilities in good condition.
I was asked to be on the 2022 Bond Committee but declined. This almost $400 million plan was defeated by roughly 60% of Ector County voters.
Now, we come to the current 2023 Bond Committee. This committee began with around 140 members and, as with most committees, has steadily shrunk in active participation over the course of the seven meetings. Our final meeting was held last Thursday, May 4, 2023 when it was declared and reported that our work was done.
As a committee member I would dispute that our work is anywhere near complete.
At the start of every meeting, we were presented with a review of the Committee’s mandate:
- Receive and review the findings of an updated, Facilities Assessment regarding physical condition and other aspects of all District facilities.
The Committee did receive a very exhaustive facilities assessment but spent almost no time reviewing its contents. It did appear that the assessment provided was somewhat out of date. At no time did we discuss what specific, big ticket maintenance items would cost nor how/who derived those costs – we were simply presented with some very large maintenance costs for priority 1 ($51 million) and priority 2 ($79 million) maintenance needs. If I were to assign a grade based on the completeness of the work done on this item I would give it a “C-“.
- Receive and review the findings of a 2022 Demographic Study of the Ector County ISD.
The demographic study used in support of the 2022 failed bond his study showed steady growth in student numbers for the next ten years. This study, the District said, clearly showed the need for additional facilities to house an ever growing student population. “Trust the data” we were told – our schools are going to keep growing.
The update to the 2022 study was again compiled by Davis Demographics but showed a radically different picture. In the 2023 update Davis Demographics projected a DECLINING student population.
In this graph, the dark grey bars in the background are the projections made for the 2022 bond and the colored bars are the new “post COVID” projections that show a gradually declining student population. I can’t say that I have much confidence in Davis Demographic’s work but we do know that our school population has dropped significantly from our pre COVID high of 33,363. This time the bond committee was told “don’t trust the data – no way it can be correct”.
Even after Davis made some revisions to their analysis I don’t believe anyone has much confidence in their work and I would rate this item a “F”.
3. Review options for existing, renovated, and/or new facilities, and their
implications for projected student enrollment, anticipated instructional
programs/technology, and related educational specifications, district staff,
operations, and costs.
Here are some numbers that truly shocked me:
There are 5,421 empty and available Elementary school seats NOT INCLUDING portables. Add portables and our District has over 6,817 empty and available Elementary school seats.
ECISD currently has a number of elementary campuses that are below 60% capacity: Alamo (55%), Burnet (47%), Dowling (54%), Travis (40%), and Zavala (46%). There are also another batch that are under 75% utilized. Please note: these capacity numbers do NOT include any of the dreaded portable buildings that seem to become a part of every bond election’s marketing.
Likewise, while some middle schools are full – Nimitz is at 96% capacity when including a healthy number of portables while Wilson & Young is at 99% capacity – Bowie, has 341 available permanent seats available and Bonham has 106 permanent seats and a total of 281 seats available if portables are included.
It is true that some schools in our District are bulging but it’s also true that others are starving for students. The reason is that our school boundaries are in serious need of updating but the Committee wasn’t able to talk about this because of #3 on the “What Not To Do List” shown above. I understand that it is the Trustee’s job to determine actual school boundaries but to prohibit the Bond Committee from discussion about the impact that improperly drawn boundaries are having on our students is, quite simply put, ridiculous.
As for Item #3 in our mandate I don’t believe that the Committee was allowed time to discuss and evaluate most of these items:
- Beyond the really huge maintenance dollar amounts thrown at us we did not discuss options for the existing facilities nor exactly what the proposed renovations would include or not include. We certainly didn’t spend time discussing what these renovations/additions would accomplish beyond the most cursory analysis.
- When it comes to the “anticipated instructional programs/technology, and related educational specifications” we didn’t do any work here. While the Committee seemed to be unified in building a new CTE center we had to literally pull nuggets of information from District staff as to what programs would be offered at a new CTE center, how many students it might serve, etc. etc. Even then, the information we were provided was scant and without detail or specificity.
- Beyond some passing questions of “how will we staff new schools” the Committee never got to look at the implications of additional facilities on “district staff, operations, and costs”. The reality is that, as long as I can remember, we’ve never had a school board that ensured that we could keep our existing facilities in good condition as is evidenced by the huge price tag assigned to priority one and priority two maintenance needs. It’s only common sense that if we build additional facilities that these facilities must then be operated and maintained. The Committee should have had an opportunity to consider the implications on costs any recommendations brought forward might entail.
Sadly, I would have to give a grade of “D” to the Committee on mandate #3. This grade isn’t reflective of the work the Committee has done – it simply reflects the fact that we had inadequate time to consider these objectives.
4. Develop and present to the Board of Trustees a Bond Plan to serve the district as a baseline for the next 5 years and future facility needs.
Currently, we have no plan to present. Our work was declared finished and the Committee is charged with presenting a plan to the Trustees but we don’t have a plan. An outline of a plan has barely been completed. We have no one to present a plan to the Trustees as the Committee hasn’t been allowed to select members to represent the Committee as a whole.
The grade for item #4? Incomplete.
The bottom line? The Committee’s work is unfinished and needs more time to develop a fully baked plan that we can all be proud of and support. We need a plan that utilizes every single District resource to the fullest and protects the taxpayer’s pocket.
In a future post I’ll detail what is being proposed and will do my best to relay to the community the good and bad of whatever plan the District moves forward. Our District has some real needs and we are going to have spend some money but if we want voters to approve a big spending plan we must lay out a well thought out and complete plan.
On a personal note, I appreciate the time spent by everyone who served alongside me on the Bond Committee. I especially appreciate the members of the public – moms and dads and others concerned about our students – who showed up meeting after meeting. I especially appreciate David Munger, a District employee at OHS, who served with me on other bond committees but was exiled to a back table and blocked from participating in our discussions despite my table’s repeated attempts to have him included. David has a real heart for our students and I would have liked to seen him included.