So far, Killeen-area voters seem receptive to the idea of a $500 million bond to pay for several new schools.
At least, that’s what a phone survey of about 400 district residents shows — results of which were presented to a Killeen ISD bond steering meeting Thursday.
According to the poll, conducted by Austin-based Baselice and Associates, about 53 percent of voters surveyed said they would support the bond package — which would pay for a new high school and new elementary schools, along with renovations and repairs to existing facilities. About 38 percent said they would oppose such a package.
The survey results likely are encouraging for district officials, who first pitched the idea of a May 2018 bond issue early last month. However, the small sample size and the poll’s
5 percent margin of error increase the likelihood that residents’ support may not be as solid as the numbers suggest.
True, the district’s bond steering committee’s tentative bond package proposal came in below $500 million — $426 million, to be exact — after a middle school project was eliminated.
But will those supportive surveyed voters remain on board if they are asked to foot the bill for millions more in road improvements?
That’s the likely scenario Killeen voters will face if City Council members act on the suggestion made Tuesday by Superintendent John Craft that the city propose a companion bond issue to widen four roads serving several of the new schools.
The cost of such a bond package would be nearly $46 million. And that’s just the low-end estimate.
Another problem with a potential companion bond is that it would fund road improvements that are exclusively in the southern portion of the city. The bond would widen portions of Chaparral, East Trimmier, West Trimmier and Featherline roads from two to five lanes to accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic in the areas around the new schools.
Obviously, for Killeen residents who don’t regularly drive in those areas, there’s less incentive to cast a “yes” vote for a companion bond.
So, logically, it might make more sense for the city to float a larger bond that improves streets in several areas of town. Ostensibly, more residents would see the benefits under that scenario.
But there’s a catch.
If the city and school district “link” their bond issues — meaning that voters would consider both bonds as a unit — the city’s bond revenue could only be used for road infrastructure that is specifically tied to those school district bond projects.
If the bond issues aren’t linked, one could pass and the other could fail — offerinig up the possibility of funding better roads without the new schools or funding new schools without better roads.
It’s a lot to think about for the area’s residents, but even more to think about for Killeen’s elected representatives, who have until Feb. 13 to pull together a bond package for the May 5 ballot.
Certainly, the time crunch the city finds itself under could have been avoided with better communication and more transparency.
When Craft made his presentation to the council Tuesday, City Manager Ron Olson noted that he and the superintendent had been in discussion about the issue “for months.” However, several council members expressed frustration over the suddenness of the superintendent’s request.
At Thursday’s bond steering committee meeting, Craft conceded he had been talking to city officials for several years about a potential bond package.
This all could have — and should have — been handled better.
Craft should have informed steering committee members early in the process that he would be asking the city to propose a companion bond — and why. The same goes for the school board, whose members were also taken by surprise after Craft’s visit to the Killeen council — especially since he didn’t mention it to trustees at Tuesday’s board meeting.
Similarly, council members should have been advised as soon as the school district’s bond efforts got underway that the city likely would be asked to improve the roads serving new district facilities — which would have afforded the opportunity to explore funding options.
It’s hard to argue against the need for a school bond issue. KISD schools are overcrowded, older facilities are in need of updates and repairs, and the district’s enrollment continues to grow.
Add to that the fact that labor and materials costs are on the rise, and it’s understandable why Craft decided to push for a bond issue sooner, rather than later.
Still, a $426 million package would have a considerable impact on district taxpayers. Baselice & Associates projected an increase of $244 annually for the owner of a $143,000 home. Multiply that by the 30-year lifespan of the bond and you’re talking about $7,300.
If you add in the tax bite from Killeen’s companion bond, that number jumps even higher.
Moreover, many property owners are still reeling from a 6.5 increase in countywide tax appraisals last year, and it’s not known whether another jump is in store in 2018.
Bottom line, voter support for the district and city bond issues is hardly a given at this point.
No doubt, serious education and marketing initiatives will be employed to explain both the need for and the benefits of the two bond packages.
As one steering committee member noted Thursday, if the district proposes a high-dollar bond, it simply has to pass in the spring, as it’s unlikely voters will give it a second chance the following year.
Simply put, the stakes are high — both for the district and its taxpayers.
Over the next five months, the issue is likely to be a popular topic of conversation — as it should be. But in the end, it comes down to a simple equation: the bonds’ costs compared to the benefits.
Let that serious discussion begin.