Since the days my boys attended ECISD schools I have followed ECISD’s activities and I have tried to be involved in the education of our students. Over the years I have served on three bond committees (including the current one), done multiple stints on the Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC), been a part of a dropout prevention committee and worked on a number of campaigns of those running for ECISD Trustee.
During this time – which has spanned about 25 years – one of the key complaints I have heard voiced over and over again is that people – parents and taxpayers – don’t trust ECISD. In fact, a survey conducted by the school district a few years ago as a part of a proposed bond issue found the lack of trust as the top issue for our school district.
Unfortunately, the trust alarm needs to again be sounded as the Trustees contemplate another bond issue.
During a recent school board meeting “The Bond Committee” presented their findings to Trustees. The presenters consisted of two ECISD employees and one ECISD student with the two employees carrying the bulk of the message. The presenters delivered to Trustees the “recommendations” of the bond committee. I put this in quotes because the Bond Committee didn’t finish its work with any concrete recommendations and didn’t select any presenters to represent us, the Bond Committee.
While there was widespread agreement on three of the proposed items – an $80 million Career and Technical Center (CTE) and the completion of priority one and two maintenance projects at a cost of $120 million – the discussion on other proposed projects was prematurely terminated. One item, a new $120 million middle school was being discussed with many – myself included – flopping back and forth between whether or not now was the time to propose a new middle school. While both Nimitz and Wilson and Young middle schools are overcrowded, other schools like Bonham and Bowie are – based on the information provided by the District – significantly underutilized. Also, there were opinions expressed that if a single middle school was offered then disputes over where this school would be located would likely damage the prospects of passage.
A number of smaller dollar amount projects were also being discussed with everything from band uniforms to improvements to Ratliff Stadium to a new bus barn being kicked around the room. While many on the committee felt these were worthwhile projects to consider, an honest effort by the Committee to not only prioritize these projects but also to perhaps scale back the dollars that should be allocated to each was ongoing. When the Committee adjourned our last meeting we were promised that a survey would be distributed to the Committee to rank these smaller projects and to assign dollar amounts to each. Weeks went by before this survey was distributed and then only ranking – not dollar amount assignment – was included in the survey. As this was not what was promised I refused to participate in the survey rightly believing that ECISD would use this flawed survey in its narrative of presenting the “Committee’s recommendations”.
As previously reported by Odessa Headlines, near the end of the committee meetings Superintendent Muri presented Committee members with the idea of being able to complete a $400 million bond issue with no increase in taxes. Needless to say, this got everyone’s attention. However, upon further investigation by Odessa Headlines it was discovered that while this was technically true it was very misleading and was only the result of the fact that for a number of years ECISD has been overcharging local taxpayers on their taxes.
While this concept is a bit confusing, consider this analogy:
Suppose you and your family are in the market for a new car and you find a nice minivan that meets your needs. You negotiate a deal to finance your new ride for 5 years at 6% interest and begin making payments. However, unbeknownst to you, the car dealership calculates your payment at 12% interest and overcharges you each month. After four years of payments you receive a letter from the dealership saying “Congratulations, we have a special offer for you. Because you have been such a loyal customer we are offering you the opportunity to purchase a new, more expensive car at the same monthly payment you’re making now!” You excitedly drive to the dealership to shop for your new car only to discover that the only reason the dealer can make this offer is because he’s overcharged you thousands of dollars over the last four years.
In this analogy you would no doubt feel angry and betrayed because there were some months that you struggled to make your car payment and had you not been overcharged you would have had more dollars for other necessities such as groceries, medical expenses, or insurance. You would certainly never purchase from that dealership again.
Also, because the dealer had overcharged not only you but every car buyer they dealt with, complaints would no doubt be filed with the State agency that regulates auto financing and, most likely, that dealer would have been penalized and ordered to pay back the overcharges.
In ECISD’s case this is exactly what has happened to property owners. During the past several legislative sessions the Texas Legislature has attempted to significantly lower property taxes realizing that many Texans struggle to pay huge property tax bills – the bulk of which go to our Texas school districts. The Legislature has done this by “compressing” the maximum amount that local school districts can tax and by replacing the funds lost by this cap on local taxes with the same amount of state taxes which come into the state primarily from sales tax and severance (oil and gas) taxes. However, in our case as the State Legislature has been reducing the maximum amount of maintenance and operations tax that can be charged to local property owners ECISD has been intercepting those savings and placing them in the District’s debt service fund. The end result is that while most taxpayers across our state have seen their property taxes decrease, Ector County residents have seen them at best flatten or in most cases continue to increase year after year.
Now, just like the car salesman, ECISD is attempting to use the past years of overtaxation as a propaganda tool to entice Ector County voters into upgrading into a shiny new bond issue and then they wonder why no one trusts our school district.
So, where does that leave us?
I will be the first to admit that our school facilities need help. Once again, despite the $20 million plus in additional taxes Ector County voters approved a few years ago in the TRE election – approximately half of which was promised to go to fix/repair/replace major maintenance items – our schools are in need of major repairs and renovations to the tune of $120 million.
Also, I think our community recognizes the importance of training more students in skilled trades whether it be welders, nurses, house framers, or auto mechanics and therefore there seems to be widespread support for a full blown career and technical education (CTE) center. In addition to training students, the addition of a CTE would help relieve both our high schools and middle schools by shifting students from PHS and OHS to the CTE for at least part of the day.
As a point of recommendation I would like to propose this plan to our Trustees as they meet this Monday:
- Approval of a bond issue election to build a new $80 million CTE center. This center, as outlined to the Bond Committee, would include the participation of Odessa College and UTPB and some of the costs would be borne by private donations.
- Approval of a $120 million bond issue election to complete priority one and two maintenance items. At the end of this work all of our campuses would be in great shape and ready to serve students for many years to come. Repairing existing facilities will cost a small fraction of the amount to build new facilities.
- The completion of a comprehensive and ongoing maintenance plan for all facilities that, once initial repairs are completed as the result of a successful bond election, keeps our facilities in good repair without having to come to taxpayers for another large debt package in the future.
- “True Up” our debt service taxes. While it’s hard to make the calculations at this time the reality is that adjusting our debt service tax rate to where it truly should be would result in a nice tax reduction for Ector County taxpayers even with $200 million in additional debt
I am hopeful that our ECISD Trustees will get honest with taxpayers about the past years of overcharging and will act with more integrity in the future by avoiding such schemes and scams. I would encourage everyone to attend Monday night’s meeting at 6:00 PM at the ECISD Administration building and let our Trustees know where you stand.