The Killeen ISD school board did the right thing in calling off a proposed $265 million bond election last week.
With the local economy reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and property appraisals soaring across the area, the board was left with little choice.
In canceling the bond by a unanimous 7-0 vote, the board effectively recognized that had the bond been put before voters in November, it likely would have failed — given the uncertainty among local residents about the short-term economic stability of the area.
But more than that, it was an acknowledgement that continuing to push for a $265 million construction package at a time when students aren’t even in the classroom would seem like an overreach at this point. That’s especially true since voters approved a $465 million construction bond just two years ago this month — and that money hasn’t all been spent yet.
The proposed bond had been pushed back from May to November, along with the school board election, amid concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
But it quickly became apparent that pushing the bond vote to the fall wasn’t the answer.
Superintendent John Craft summed it up after Tuesday’s board meeting: “Given the circumstances in and around the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to pause and further analyze the financial implications to our community and better determine how to best serve our students in the future while maintaining sensitivity to our taxpayers.”
That statement certainly hits all the right notes.
But during the same meeting, the board voted 4-3 to move ahead with a $3.8 million project to install synthetic turf at three high school stadiums — Ellison, Harker Heights and Shoemaker.
The expenditure was included in the now-canceled bond election, which called for upgrades at the three schools’ stadiums to bring them up to standards to host 6-A football games.
Those three fields currently have grass on them and Leo Buckley Stadium at Killeen High School has turf. The stadium at the new high school on Chaparral Road is planned to have turf as well.
As it is now proposed, the project will cost the district $100,000 from the capital improvements project budget and $3.7 million from the district’s strategic facilities fund.
The new turf is intended to reduce maintenance costs, saving the district money in the long term.
Still, spending $3.8 million on football fields seems like a frivolous expense — a luxury item that seems unnecessary at a time when the district faces significant challenges regarding the safe education of its students this fall.
The fact that three school board members — Susan Jones, Marvin Rainwater and Shelley Wells — voted against the expenditure should raise questions about whether the money should be spent elsewhere.
The $3.8 million budgeted for turf would pay the salaries of about 75 starting teachers — not an insignificant figure, considering the board just last month approved cutting the number of teacher positions on the payroll by 155.
At the time, Craft said the district simply couldn’t afford to support current teacher staffing levels going forward. To compensate, the board voted to increase some secondary-level class sizes from 23 students for every teacher to 26:1.
Fewer teachers, larger class sizes. Yet the district continues to build new schools and call for even more new facilities to accommodate its 45,000-student population.
Still, most district residents can understand the push for new schools. Athletics-related spending is another matter — especially considering the current public health restrictions.
As with the purchase of a $1 million scoreboard for Leo Buckley Stadium in 2017, a multimillion-dollar expenditure for synthetic turf sends the wrong message regarding district priorities.
Right now, the district should be concentrating solely on planning for the upcoming school year.
Granted, that’s easier said than done.
Amid the constantly changing landscape of public safety protocols, the administration no doubt has its hands full trying to come up with a workable strategy for resuming instruction in the fall.
It’s virtually impossible to predict how things will look three months from now.
And even if the virus has receded, the potential for problems is magnified in a school setting.
As Craft pointed out last week, if one student tests positive for the coronavirus, the entire school could face a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine. Multiply that by 51 campuses, and it’s obvious that the risks of in-person classroom instruction are considerable.
To date, the administration and board have done a lot of things right in response to the coronavirus concerns.
The district has erred on the side of caution, canceling large public gatherings — even when that was not the most popular decision.
The district has paid for students’ caps and gowns, produced virtual graduation ceremonies and planned for in-person ceremonies later this summer.
KISD also has provided online educational instruction and resources, facilitated better access to internet service and continued distance learning into summer school.
In addition, Craft announced last week that the district would provide basic school supplies for all students in the district this fall — a welcome step, considering many families have been hit hard economically by the fallout from the pandemic.
Heading into the summer, the district continues to plan for a variety of contingencies for the new school year, including the possibility of a hybrid teaching plan, which would include both online and classroom instruction.
When the board returns for its next meeting on June 9, members will have several important items to discuss, including a complicated district budget for the coming fiscal year.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the economy and their responsibility to be stewards of the taxpayers’ money, board members should look to cut all unnecessary expenditures — and that includes the synthetic turf project.
The board should wait until the district’s finances come into better focus before moving ahead with new projects — or another bond issue, for that matter.
That’s not just the smart thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.