Killeen school officials are pushing for a bond election next May, and the clock is ticking.
Between now and then, the district intends to use the recommendations of a steering committee, plus input from a public survey, to determine how much to spend and what to spend it on.
If the bond issue were to include all the items on the district’s wish list — including a fifth high school and a new football stadium — the expenditures would total $500 million.
With such a large price tag, a slow, methodical approach to organizing a bond election would seem to be the best strategy.
But to date, the process has seemed rushed.
On Oct. 24, the Killeen Independent School District sent out more than 100 invitations, asking recipients to be part of the bond steering committee.
Just 16 days later, the 52-member committee — comprised largely of civic, business and education leaders — held its first meeting at Harker Heights High School last week. Superintendent John Craft, who has laid out a time line for completing all the steps necessary for the board to call a May bond election by the Feb. 16 deadline, gave the committee a detailed PowerPoint presentation on the project Thursday.
The district’s calendar calls for the steering committee to meet each Thursday this month, except for Thanksgiving. If necessary, the group will also meet the first Thursday in December. During these sessions, the panel will review the district’s construction needs, establishing priorities and determining the size of the eventual bond package.
The committee is then scheduled to present its recommendations to the school board on Dec. 12.
That’s a lot of work in a short time frame, but Craft has expressed confidence the group will get it done.
Still, the bond initiative seems somewhat disjointed.
With more than four dozen people offering their opinions on the size and shape of the potential bond package, it may be difficult for the committee to reach a solid consensus.
Also, a public survey has not yet been sent to district residents, and no time line for its distribution has been announced.
Considering the steering committee is expected to factor the survey’s results into its recommendations, the district must move quickly to ensure residents have ample time to respond before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Meanwhile, the list of potential projects the committee will consider is substantial.
In addition to the high school and stadium, the district’s Strategic Facility Plan lists three additional elementary schools and another middle school.
Craft also suggested the panel could consider repairs or renovations to 12 schools that are more than 50 years old.
No doubt, the committee will have its hands full when it comes time to recommend which projects to include.
But before signing off on some of the larger projects, — such as a $173 million high school or additional middle school — the committee members would be wise to ask themselves how much the taxpayers are willing to spend.
It’s true that the district has dropped the tax rate two cents since 2012, but even at this lower rate, residents have been paying higher taxes because of increased property appraisals across the district.
The rate must also be taken in context. At $1.11 per $100 valuation, it is 11 cents lower than the next lowest district — Copperas Cove ISD. However, Killeen ISD’s rate is nearly 50 percent higher than the 75-cent tax rate Killeen charges— making KISD by far the highest taxing entity in the Killeen area. The owner of a $136,500 home — the median sale price last year — would pay just over $1,500 in taxes to the school district. By comparison, the same homeowner would pay $1,023 in Killeen city property taxes.
So, the question remains: How big a bond does the district need, and how much extra will residents pay?
First of all, the district hasn’t floated a bond issue since 2002, when voters approved a $98.7 million bond that funded four elementary schools, a middle school and several additions to existing schools. Twenty-one other building projects have been completed using the district’s designated fund balance after the bond funds were exhausted.
In the 15 years since that bond was passed, the district estimates KISD’s enrollment has grown by nearly 13,000 students. District projections call for an increase of another 5,000 students by the 2026-27 school year.
Meanwhile, the district is employing 232 portable buildings because a shortage of space in existing schools, and other campuses are in need of renovations and repairs.
But why the rush to push through a bond election in six months?
Certainly, need is a factor, but so is cost. In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, construction and materials costs have risen dramatically. Also, bond rates are increasing; a longer wait could mean higher rates of repayment for the district.
Also, pushing the bond election back to November would tie it in with the county, state and congressional elections — raising the odds that the KISD issue could get lost in the political shuffle.
In the meantime, the bond steering committee should err on the side of conservatism when it comes to spending on proposed projects.
Older schools deserve attention, as do plans for new elementary schools — given a projected growth rate of more then 2,300 students in the next decade. On the other hand, big-ticket items like a high school and football stadium should be heavily scrutinized, especially given their combined cost of more than $220 million.
Additionally, the committee should take a hard look at the data being cited as justification for the projects’ need.
The district’s demographer has projected a 1 percent growth rate over the next five years — about 450-500 students per year.
However, the district is using a different enrollment figure than the one calculated by the Texas Education Agency. KISD, which puts the district enrollment at just over 39,500. At a 1 percent growth rate, the difference is about 40 students per year, or 400 over a 10-year span.
The committee should request population projections from several entities before committing to a wholesale building plan.
In the final analysis, the committee should be given the information — and time — to do their job thoroughly. If that means recommending a delay in the bond election, so be it.
The school district’s future — and our tax money — are too important to rush this through.