Killeen-area voters just approved a $426 million school bond issue last year. Last week the Killeen school superintendent announced he wants another bond election next May.
The big-ticket item in last year’s bond issue was a new high school, which will open in 2022 in south Killeen. It was among six school construction projects. The bond also called for upgrades at several existing schools, including an extensive renovation of 55-year-old Killeen High School.
But while last year’s bond projects will help to eliminate dozens of the 290 portable classrooms that now exist across the district, about 50 percent of the structures will remain.
Next year’s bond issue would build three new elementaries, potentially resulting in the elimination of nearly all portables, depending on the structuring of the final bond package.
And as Superintendent John Craft envisions it, the bond would fund construction of on-campus stadiums at four high school campuses at a cost of about $28.2 million — allowing each school to host its own football games, soccer matches and track meets.
Craft declined to offer a dollar amount for the bond issue, though he did say the district’s property tax rate could be lower than the rate originally projected prior to 2018 bond vote.
Craft is already planning to form another bond steering committee, similar to the hand-picked group that worked through the options of last year’s bond issue, and have the committee start meeting as soon as early November.
Given the suddenness of Craft’s announcement — he first broached the subject at the tail end of Tuesday’s school board meeting — district residents have a right to question the decision.
As with the last bond issue, the steering committee and school board are going to have to rush to put together a package in time to get it approved for the May 2 ballot.
In addition, it should be noted that the district hasn’t even spent all the money from the last bond issue yet.
Moreover, the district has made several changes to the list of 2018 bond projects approved by voters — including building new school facilities to house consolidated campuses and increasing the scope and price tag of the Killeen High makeover from $75 million to $89 million.
Granted, district officials have kept the public apprised of the changes in projects and spending totals, but often after deciding to proceed with the new plans.
And whereas the district’s facilities director said in August that the money for stadium upgrades would come from the district’s Strategic Facilities Fund, now that funding source is being shifted to bond money — a change Craft didn’t address at a Thursday news conference.
None of this is to question whether the issue of portable classrooms should be a priority. It definitely should.
But if the issue is now viewed as so pressing that another bond issue is needed to resolve it, why wasn’t it addressed more decisively with last year’s bond?
Voters gave the district almost a half-billion dollars last year, many doing so in the belief that the money would meet the district’s needs for years to come.
Even with the projects funded by the current bond, it was evident that overcrowding would still exist on some elementary campuses —and the only long-term solution is to build more schools.
Also, the stadium issue — which was dropped from consideration early in the process for the last bond — has not gone away. With a fifth traditional high school opening in three years, the district will need more than just the single large stadium currently in use. Building a new stadium, or stadiums, was bound to come up again.
So, realistically, we should have seen this coming.
But did it have to come so soon?
Before last year, the district hadn’t floated a bond issue since 2002, when voters approved a $98.7 million bond that funded four elementary schools, a middle school and several additions to existing schools.
Twenty-one other building projects were completed using the district’s designated fund balance after the bond funds were exhausted.
No doubt, last year’s bond issue was needed. Since 2002, KISD’s enrollment grew by nearly 13,000 students. District projections call for an increase of another 5,000 students by the 2026-27 school year.
And granted, the next bond likely won’t be as large as the one approved in 2018, but it could be substantial.
Recently funded elementary schools have cost between $28 million for Maude Moore Wood Elementary, to $45 million for the district’s 36th elementary, which was included in last year’s bond and will accommodate 1,050 students. Using $40 million as an average, three new elementary schools would cost the district $120 million. Adding in the $28.2 million figure for the on-campus stadiums would bring the bond total to about $150 million.
And that’s if the bond steering committee and school board don’t consider any additional projects — which is a distinct possibility.
Craft said none of the projects in the proposed bond would be started until the current bond projects are completed. He cited phasing of projects and construction costs in employing that strategy.
But with such a stretched-out time line, how can it be argued that the current needs are so urgent — or that the district’s priorities won’t change in the interim?
Most importantly, district residents have a right to ask whether the 2018 bond money could have been allocated better, to eliminate the need for another initiative in just two years’ time.
When taxpayers see voter-approved projects getting upsized, others being added on the fly, and millions of dollars in construction savings being spent rather than saved or invested, they have a right to be wary.
This is especially so when some of the older schools were left off the bond project list last year — except for security and ADA compliance upgrades — while other areas could look forward to sparkling new facilities.
Add to this the number of KISD’s high-dollar administrative salaries, the $42,000 raise the school board gave Craft early this year and controversial expenses like a $1 million football scoreboard, and taxpayers have every reason to be skeptical when asked for more money.
If the district goes ahead with a second bond initiative, as planned, several considerations are in order.
First, Craft should encourage district residents to volunteer for service on the bond steering committee, in order to provide a broader cross-section of people and more diverse viewpoints. At present, Craft plans to extend invitations to former committee members, hand-picked community members and individuals nominated by school board members — with those invitations going out this week.
Second, in dividing the bond into two propositions — one for the new schools and the other for the athletic facilities, as the law requires — the district should state, on the ballot, the cost of each proposition and specify the projected cost of each portion.
Third, the ballot wording for the bond issue should spell out, in detail, what the money will be used for, with the acknowledgement that any significant changes will require the consent of the district’s voters.
Two bond issues in as many years seem like a heavy burden, but if voters approve this second initiative next May, so be it.
Still, at some point, taxpayers may well decide they’re done serving as the district’s piggy bank.
And that time may come sooner rather than later.