Just how big is Killeen ISD’s potential bond package going to get?
That’s a legitimate question, especially after the committee weighing bond package options last week largely favored projects that would total an estimated $343 million.
Those projects include three new elementary schools, a new middle school, rebuilding Peebles Elementary School and Harker Heights Elementary School and athletic stadium improvements at Ellison, Harker Heights and Shoemaker high schools.
That’s an awful lot of projects — and an awful lot of money, especially since district taxpayers just approved a $426 million bond in May 2018, with the big-ticket item being a new high school in south Killeen.
Now it seems as if the hand-picked bond steering committee is being guided along a predetermined path toward another high-dollar bond package.
Superintendent John Craft has maintained since the new bond initiative was announced last month that it’s entirely up to the committee and the school board as to what is in the bond package — or even if there will be a bond at all.
But after two meetings of the committee — the latest taking place in one of the schools on the list of potential projects — it’s becoming apparent that most committee members are moving full-speed ahead.
Some of the projects have lower-cost options, such as remodeling Harker Heights and Peebles elementaries for $65 million rather than totally rebuilding them at a total price of $90 million. Yet, most committee members gave high-priority ratings to the rebuild options while largely rejecting the remodel plans.
Committee members also gave high marks to the proposed stadium upgrades, which are estimated to cost $60 million — up from a projected $28.3 million price tag provided in August. The higher price reflects roads, visitors locker rooms, larger press boxes and more seats — which hadn’t been figured into the first estimate. Still, most committee members seem to favor the project.
The overriding question would seem to be: Just how much construction does the district need, and do the future growth projections justify it?
According to district figures, the answer is yes.
KISD’s demographer estimates the district will grow at a rate of 1% over the next 10 years, and will see a corresponding influx of 4,759 new students, putting the overall enrollment number over 50,200 students.
A projection by RKG Associates projects an even higher growth rate of 1.4%, which would put the student population at close to 52,000.
Clearly, the new students have to be accommodated, and many of the district’s current campuses are already at or over their designed capacity. Building new schools is the most obvious solution.
But the district’s taxpayers are right to ask how much of a burden they should be expected to bear.
As of now, KISD’s property tax rate is $1.16 per $100 valuation. That’s about 10 cents lower than the district had projected prior to passage of the 2018 bond package.
How did that happen? Well, the district saved about 3 cents on the tax rate through the sale of the 2018 bonds. Then the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 3, which provided state funding that allowed KISD to reduce its tax rate by another 7 cents.
However, that 10-cent tax savings could be lost if voters approve a second bond, especially one that totals more than $300 million.
Craft recently requested an analysis on a $235 million bond, which projected a resulting tax increase of 7 to 10 cents. It stands to reason that the tax impact of a $343 million bond would be about one-third higher — or 9 to 13 cents.
More concerning, however, is the fact that HB 3 expires at the end of 2021. If the Legislature doesn’t vote to extend the measure further, KISD would lose the state funding that offsets its tax rate, might result in an additional 7 cents for district taxpayers.
With passage of a large bond package and the loss of HB 3 funds, a 20-cent tax bump isn’t out of the question — and that translates to an extra $300 a year for the owner of a $150,000 home.
In a visit to the Herald last month, Craft estimated the bond price could range from $180 million to $210 million. As things stand, the potential bond total is nearly twice that original low-end number.
When this whole second-bond discussion started, the focus was on the elimination of portable classrooms at the elementary level — and that can be handled largely through the construction of new elementaries.
But recent discussions seem to be getting a bit far afield from the district’s original stated intent.
The full wish list from the 2018 bond initiative would have totaled more than $700 million if all projects had been included in the package.The steering committee and school board trimmed it to the $426 million package that went before voters in 2018.
But now many of those wish-list items have reemerged in the new initiative — along with many others.
Last week, committee members heard about potential remodeling projects for Ellison High School and Manor Middle School, though neither came with a price estimate.
Committee feedback prompted their inclusion in the discussion last week, but how much extra would these projects cost?
When district voters two years ago approved a bond package totaling nearly half a billion dollars, many cast their vote believing it would take care of all the district’s needs for years to come.
But now, less than 18 months later, the district is not only talking about a second construction package, but one that is nearly as expensive as the first.
It’s time to pump the brakes on this bond initiative.
The district should get back to a simplified package that will address the problem of elementary school overcrowding and deal with any additional projects using district money.
Fortunately, Craft seems to be thinking along those lines. In an email late last week, the district said the superintendent will suggest that bond money be supplemented by KISD’s Strategic Facilities Fund — and that’s an important step.
Granted, the committee and school board still must sign off on anything that would go before the voters, but they have a better chance of winning bond approval a second time around if they can keep the price tag in check.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with wanting the best facilities for the district, its staff and its students.
But it’s important to remember who will be paying the bill.