Last May, Killeen-area voters authorized $426 million in bond money for school district construction projects.
It seems the district’s leadership is still figuring out how they want to spend it.
That was illustrated last week when the district unveiled a proposed upgrade to the originally planned renovation of Killeen High School, the district’s oldest high school.
What had been a $75 million remodeling project when it was presented to voters in the spring has now morphed into a $98 million plan that will include significant new construction.
District officials were quick to note that the extra $23 million isn’t coming at the expense of other projects contained in the bond plan. Rather, it is being taken from the district’s strategic facilities fund.
The supersized renovation plan would put the school on a par with the district’s newest high school — scheduled to open in south Killeen in 2022. The larger project will give KHS students far better facilities and afford less disruption during construction.
But why is Superintendent John Craft pushing a plan so different from the one proposed in the bond package the board signed off on in February and the voters approved in May?
The same can be asked regarding the renovation plan for Clifton Park Elementary, which was included in the bond as a $21 million construction project. Craft changed course on that project as well, proposing that the school be rebuilt and relocated behind Nolan Middle School at a cost of $40 million.
The idea behind the change seems reasonable enough. Instead of consolidating part of the Bellaire Elementary population at Clifton Park, as in the original plan, building a new school would allow both schools’ student populations to stay together. That’s always a plus.
The adjusted plan also allows for a reduction in cost of the Pershing Park Elementary consolidation project — from $51 million to $42 million — since that school would no longer have to accommodate some of the Bellaire population.
Another big change since the bond’s approval in May was the board’s September decision to build a new school on the East Ward Elementary campus site instead of renovating the current school. As a result, the price tag for the consolidation with West Ward Elementary jumped from $44 million to $48 million.
While getting an entirely new school for just $4 million more may seem like a no-brainer, the upgraded project comes with a cost. Because the old East Ward school must be demolished to make way for the new three-story facility, students who attend the school will have to be bused 7.5 miles across town to the new Maude Moore Wood Elementary during East Ward’s two-year construction process — something parents were informed about after the new plan was approved.
With all these moving parts, it’s reasonable to ask why the district is making so many changes after the fact.
The answer appears to be twofold: First, district officials are trying to maximize the funding available through the construction bond as they continue to crunch the numbers; and secondly, they apparently didn’t have all the details worked out when the bond issue was put before voters.
That second factor shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
The bond effort was somewhat rushed, with Craft first announcing plans for the initiative in October 2017.
A bond steering committee was quickly put together, with members gathering for the first meeting on Nov. 2. Over the next three weeks, members had to consider several potential projects proposed by Craft, rank project priorities — using several factors such as urgency, benefit to students and equity — and recommend a potential bond package to the school board.
The school board then had until mid-February to meet the state-mandated deadline for putting a bond issue on the May 5 ballot, while deciding how big the initiative should be and whether to split the bond into two portions — as it eventually did.
Once the voters went along with the plan, district officials set to work, reviewing bids and architectural proposals. It stands to reason that only then did some of the project options become realistic possibilities.
No doubt, the superintendent and board want to achieve the best possible outcome for the district’s students, residents and taxpayers. And with a bond issue of this size, it’s only natural to think big whenever possible.
But district residents have a right to question the pace of changes being proposed and approved.
While it’s important to lock in designs and construction plans before interest rates, labor and materials costs rise, it’s also important to let the public know how plans for these projects are changing before rubber-stamping them into existence.
For example, the super-sized Killeen High project was first presented to the board for consideration on Tuesday, but less than 12 hours later, the district had released a video to the media and on its website touting the expanded project.
The board will have to give final approval to the plan next week, but where was the public input on such a dramatic change in the project’s scope?
To its credit, KISD has been transparent on how much is being spent on bond projects and where the money is coming from.
But it’s fair to ask how the district plans to utilize its facilities fund going forward, since whatever money is used is money not available for other potential district building projects.
Notably, talk of a second high school stadium continues to resurface — at least informally --- though Craft dropped it from the list of proposed bond projects early in the committee discussion.
It would be unfair to KISD voters and to the schools whose building projects didn’t make the list of bond priorities to consider such an expenditure now.
Certainly, the superintendent and board are to be commended for striving to give the district and its students the best possible facilities for the money available.
But as projects are changed, the decision makers need to do a better job keeping residents in the loop.
After all, they’re the ones footing the bill.