It looks as if Killeen school district taxpayers will be facing another bond election next year.
After a steering committee proposed a two-part, $265 million initiative last week, it’s up to the school board to decide whether to place it on the May ballot — a move board members are likely to endorse next month.
As proposed, the bond includes the construction of two new elementary schools, the rebuilding of Harker Heights and Peebles elementary schools and the renovation of Ellison High School. The second part calls for upgrades to the athletic stadiums at Shoemaker, Ellison and Harker Heights high schools.
Certainly, district officials — chiefly, Superintendent John Craft — will argue that the projects supported by the bond are necessary to better serve students and accommodate growing enrollment. And in some aspects, the bond would do just that.
But the process of getting to this point wasn’t just flawed. It was essentially fixed.
It started with the rushed announcement in late October that the district was looking into another bond — the second in two years — with the expressed purpose of eliminating portable classrooms at the elementary level.
Before the dust had settled, the district was already sending out invitations to potential bond steering committee members and setting up committee meetings — all the while noting that the steering committee might not decide to seek a bond.
Never mind the fact that most of the invited committee members served on the last committee, which produced a $426 million bond package that went before voters in 2018. Moreover, a significant portion of the committee members are over 65 years old — so their property taxes would be frozen at a lower level than whatever tax increases a new bond would produce. No matter what they approved, they wouldn’t be feeling the pinch.
In addition, no public hearings were held on the issue of a new bond, and no outside input was sought regarding what kinds of projects should be included in a potential bond package.
But perhaps the most eye-opening fact is that steering committee members weren’t formally surveyed about whether they supported a bond until the committee’s fourth and final meeting.
In other words, calling for a bond was never really a matter of “if.” It was only a question of “how large.”
The district’s spokeswoman, in response to questions from the Herald, explained that the up-or-down vote on the bond was put at the end so committee members would have a chance to weigh all the facts presented at the first three meetings before making a decision.
That makes sense to a certain extent, but several bond committee members complained that they had little time to discuss the proposed projects among themselves, and that proposals from members on other potential projects weren’t given much consideration,
Craft’s strategy for gaining the committee’s support was less than subtle, as the second and third meetings were conducted in two of the oldest elementary schools in the district — schools that not so coincidentally happened to be on the list of potential building projects. Then the fourth and final meeting was held in the district’s brand new Maude Moore Elementary School.
Naturally, committee members would want to give the district’s students the best possible facilities — so they were quick to agree to rebuild Harker Heights and Peebles elementaries — the two older schools in which they had met — at a cost of $90 million, as Craft had advocated. That was on top of a plan to construct three new elementaries, as Craft proposed at the outset.
At the last meeting, Craft changed up the discussion, announcing that the district would use its strategic facilities fund to build a new elementary school and a new middle school. Both had been part of the original discussions for the potential 2020 bond.
In addition, Craft said, the district would draw on its facilities fund to increase the capacity of the athletic stadium at the new high school in south Killeen that will open in the fall of 2022 to 4,500 seats. The district would also upgrade other facilities at the new high school’s stadium to accommodate 6A high school football.
Total cost to the district for the two new schools and stadium upgrades is about $108 million — which would basically wipe out the strategic facilities fund.
While the use of district funds might be seen as a good-faith commitment to the district’s taxpayers, the wisdom of depleting the facilities fund is highly questionable. This is especially true as KISD faces the likelihood of sizable cuts in federal Impact Aid due to a declining percentage of military-connected students — and Impact Aid is needed to replenish the facilities fund.
And while the district would still leave the upgrades to three high school stadiums in the hands of district voters, the decision to spend in excess of $10 million to expand the stadium facilities at the new high school essentially takes away taxpayers’ veto power regarding the project.
Certainly, district taxpayers have a right to ask whether the money for the new school’s stadium upgrades might be better spent on educational facilities.
In 2002, district voters approved a $98.7 million bond that funded four elementary schools, a middle school and additions to several existing schools. Twenty-one other building projects were completed using the district’s designated fund balance after the bond funds were exhausted.
Now, district residents are facing the possibility of two bond initiatives in two years, which could put them on the hook for potentially $691 million in bond debt.
That’s a tax burden that many district families simply can’t bear.
No doubt, the bond committee members did what they thought was best for the district and its students.
But it’s time for the school board — which has been elected by KISD’s taxpayers — to step back and consider the financial ramifications of a second large bond package when presented with the committee’s recommendation Jan. 14.
With the expected drop-off in Impact Aid, the uncertain continuation of House Bill 3 funding after 2021, and questions surrounding the state’s so-called “Robin Hood” tax revenue reallocation program, the district should be cautious about embarking on any further large-scale building plans.
The district is to be commended for trying to give its students, teachers and staff the best possible educational and athletic facilities.
But going back to the taxpayers for a second large bond in 24 months while simultaneously depleting the district’s facilities fund is a questionable path to follow.
If the district goes all-in on an ambitious building program despite uncertain future finances, it could face the risk of having top-notch facilities but lacking the personnel and resources to fully staff them.
And that’s not an outlook the district’s school board or voters should embrace.