If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
That seems to be the philosophy of Killeen’s school superintendent as the district works toward its second school bond issue in three years.
Killeen-area voters approved a $426 million school bond issue last year, the highlight of which was a new high school, which will open in the fall of 2022 in south Killeen.
Now, Superintendent John Craft is calling for a second bond issue — with the focus on eliminating portable classrooms at the elementary school level through the building of new facilities and renovation of older campuses.
But as the new initiative moves forward, it’s worth noting how much the process resembles the first go-round.
For one thing, the time line for the current process is almost identical to the last one. The invitations were sent out to prospective bond steering committee members in mid-October, as was the case in 2017. The first committee meeting took place Tuesday, the first week in November — same as last time — and the committee is scheduled to finish its work by mid-December, also a similar target date.
Moreover, many of the people who served on the committee the first time around were invited back for the current effort, and the same three people who headed up the committee in 2017 are back in those roles this year.
Whether this strategy was based on expediency or an attempt to produce a desired outcome is not clear. But it can’t be denied that the first bond committee played a significant role in developing a bond package that both benefitted the district and won favor with voters. For that reason alone, it would make sense to adopt the model that worked so well the first time around.
Still, the bond process lacks transparency — though all the meetings are open to the public, as Craft pointed out last week in a visit to the Herald.
First, bond committee makeup is limited to hand-picked invitees from the superintendent and board members. At-large volunteers are not given the opportunity to serve.
Also, the structure of the bond committee meetings limits the amount of input residents would be able to give, as committee members are focused on options presented by district officials.
When asked about the potential for a public hearing to gather more comments from district taxpayers, Craft said that would only work if such a hearing were scheduled between the second and third committee meetings — which turns out to be Thanksgiving week.
If this process had been planned with more public involvement in mind, the initial bond announcement would have been made in September, with ample time for a public hearing regarding school district needs and priorities before the committee started its work.
After all, the district’s taxpayers are the ones who would be on the hook for whatever construction projects are included in next year’s bond issue — should one come to pass.
Among the items that could be included in the bond are on-campus stadiums at four high schools. The projected cost in an August presentation to the school board was just over $28 million, though the plan was very preliminary.
During his visit to the Herald, Craft was quick to note that the committee might not favor including the stadiums in the bond package, and he stressed that his first priority was focusing on facilities for instruction.
As things stand, several instructional facilities may be under consideration by the committee members. Three new elementary schools are among the options — which would reduce overcrowding at several of the district’s 32 existing elementary campuses — as well a new middle school. Also on the list of potential projects are the remodeling or rebuilding of two of the district’s oldest facilities — Harker Heights and Peebles elementaries. Those two campuses also have the most portable classrooms.
What the committee finally decides to include in a potential bond issue is unknown. For that reason Craft was hesitant to put a dollar figure on what might go before the voters next spring.
However, based on a tentative wish list of three new elementary schools, remodeling two others, a middle school plus the stadium package, the superintendent offered an estimate of $180 million to $210 million. On Friday, the district’s spokeswoman said Craft had a $235 million bond analysis conducted, which estimated a corresponding tax increase of 7 to 10 cents.
That potential bond amount seems like a lot — especially since the district’s taxpayers signed off on nearly half a billion dollars in projects last year.
The need to build new elementaries may be legitimate, but the sense of urgency surrounding the elimination of portables seems overblown — especially since projects from a second bond wouldn’t be started until the 2018 bond projects are completed in 2023. Using that time line, the district’s elementary portables would remain in place for another five years or so. That’s hardly a quick resolution to the problem.
That raises the question of why the district didn’t solve the problem in the current bond, by making the elementary portables a priority rather than remodeling and replacing schools with less overcrowding.
Craft said that goes back to choices made by the committee and school board, who opted to prioritize the elimination of portables at the middle and high school levels.
Obviously, there was a sizable wish list of projects in 2017, and even with $426 million to spend, not everything could be tackled in a district with more than 50 campuses and 45,000 students.
During his visit last week, Craft acknowledged that he knew after passage of the 2018 bond that another bond would be needed.
Why, then, did the superintendent wait until last month, at the tail end of a school board meeting, to announce plans for a second bond?
The answer to that may be multifaceted.
First, the short bond time line worked well last time, so that may have factored into the decision to repeat it. Second, a compressed schedule may serve to keep committee members on task.
Shortening the process also makes it easier to control the outcome — fewer variables come into play with a six-week deadline to produce a bond recommendation.
This is obviously a consideration, as the first two meetings are not so coincidentally at the two oldest elementary campuses — the ones up for consideration for renovation projects.
The next committee meeting is 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at Harker Heights Elementary. The following meeting is at 6 p.m. Dec. 3 at Peebles Elementary in Killeen.
District parents and taxpayers would be wise to attend these meetings, to hear which project options are discussed and which ones are chosen — as well as the estimated cost for each project.
Though the district has promised to keep residents apprised of the committee’s progress through its web site, it’s important to hear — in person — what a potential bond may look like before the school board gives its approval.
From the district’s standpoint, the bond process certainly worked well last time.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t work a little better.