District officials said that decision left a half million dollars worth of ideas and improvements on the table four years ago.
This time, school officials said they will not hold back, which is why voters could be asked to approve a $1.7 billion bond.
School leaders say they know a bond that big is going to be a hard sell.
For that price tag, voters can expect six new schools, upgrades to the older schools, new security measures, and stronger educational programming to address the rampant growth and educational disparities in various parts of the district.
If the district decides to pursue such a bond, it could cost the owner of a $300,000 home an additional $300 a year. The decision could also mean a jump in taxes and the numbers are still being crunched.
During a fiery, six-hour school board meeting on June 8, where some parents expressed distrust of the board and trustees challenged the administration about “bad data,” the administration painted a better picture of the problems of an aging school district as they hammered out more details of the proposed bond which is expected to be ready for board approval in August, in time for a November election.
One big change is that the bond will cover six years instead of four. Another change is that the district is up against a Rubik’s cube of variables, aptly described by Trustee Kristin Tassin.
“The number is big and shocking and we will have to raise taxes to support it. It is nothing we want to consider, but it is what we are faced with,” she said. “With property taxes not being able to fully fund education; with state shares declining and (the state) is funding 30 percent; even if we raise your taxes, the state is going to claw back even more than they claw back now,” Tassin said.
“They (state officials) are talking about capping tax rates and making it harder to pass bonds and talking about cutting education funding. We are talking about adding safety and security in schools, more personal counselors and we are talking about marshals and needing fencing and personnel to run metal detectors and 86 percent plus goes to salaries and benefits and only 2 percent is central administration. That is the state we are in,” said Tassin.
Administrators painted a dreary picture of the structure of schools with the average age of buildings at 25 years.
“We have 20 facilities 37-plus old and 40 over 20 years. We are an aging district with a lot of need out there. If you are going to maintain your assets, you have to invest $320 million,” said Oscar Perez, the district’s chief operations officer. Perez, Steve Bassett, the district’s chief financial officer, and Beth Martinez, chief of staff and strategic planning, gave reports and fielded questions from the board.
With proposals to build four new elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, revamp aging schools and additions, the district is looking at more than a half billion for construction.
“These are needs, not recommendations. We will have to work through to see the final number this capital plan carries. There are four priority stages and we are looking at one and two where the majority categories under priority one and priority two is roofing and structural,” said Perez.
They used surveys, focus groups, and 50 hours of table talks to ensure they were not missing anything.
“We are an aging district with a lot of needs; roofing, exterior windows, plumbing, electrical. The two major categories under priority one and two is roofing and structural,” Perez said. “We have quite a few buildings that have movement and they need to be addressed. If you are going to maintain an asset, you need to invest in it.”
Board President Jason Burdine added, “there is a lot of sticker shock, but the good news is that in this plan, we are not building white marble schools or a $100 million football stadium. We are investing in our children and assuming the highest tax increase.”
More planning and more discussions will occur as a growing phalanx of parents have decided to challenge, question and uphold school administration at every turn.
FBISD parent Tammy Moreno told the board she has, “grave and real concerns about our kids and the pending $1.7 million bond. We’ve been working with invalid capacity numbers and we almost included a $14 million project based on inaccuracy. I don’t think the board should vote on a bond package until it is independently audited.”
She was referring to a last minute email June 18 from Superintendent Charles Dupre acknowledging an error in the number of students a school can hold.
“Staff acknowledged an error regarding Fort Settlement Middle School capacity, which has a functional capacity of 1,641, rather than the previously reported capacity of 1,399. Due to this regretful error, the administration will audit all capacity throughout the district and ensure that all functional capacity is reviewed and updated annually,” the district posted on its website after the meeting.
The numbers discrepancy made board members testy as they discussed rescinding a May 14 vote regarding First Colony and Fort Settlement middle schools.
“In light of this new information this afternoon, both schools are within policy so what is your recommendation Dr. Dupre,” asked trustee Jim Rice. “I really want to know in light of the new numbers. That’s your job. You need to give us a recommendation based on accurate data and we can decide how to vote.”
When an administrator offered up more numbers, Rice snapped back, “that’s not a recommendation, that’s just talk.”
In the end, the board voted to rescind the May 14 recommendation to build a dozen classroom additions at Fort Settlement. It could be recommended that $22 million be set aside to upgrade the older First Colony Middle School. The recommendation to rebalance and rezone at the appropriate time means the numbers will be periodically checked. The decision to rescind passed 6-1 with trustee KP George calling foul.
“We talk about certainty and emotional well being of children. That’s why I voted. I still stand by that. This is nothing against Fort Settlement or First Colony. We talk logic to many places but we are not logical in the rezoning process when it comes to Riverstone,” George said.
As the board received new information and pondered information from previous sessions, such as the fact that the district has about 8,000 students living here but attending schools elsewhere, Board Secretary Dave Rosenthal made a proposal that instead of putting money into nearly 50-year-old schools that would still not be as advanced as brand new schools, to close schools and build new schools with bells and whistles to bring back some of those missing 8,000. Gaining back even 200 of those students could close the financial deficit, he said.
That suggestion prompted Board Vice President Addie Heyliger to ask the board to define its vision.
“This whole facilities plan has been an extreme challenge. What is our true philosophy when it comes to over-utilization. To make a decision like closing down two schools is something we had to talk about months ago and get community buy-in. One of the (parents) said we rezone for some and build for others. I challenge this board to think what is our true philosophy because we are not consistent. I understand each community has different challenges. But I’m not seeing a true overall arching philosophy that comes out of the decisions we are making,” said Heyliger.
Both Rosenthal and trustee Grayle James said they felt they were moving too fast and James cautioned against trying to do too many new things at once.
“I’ve heard my colleagues say rezone, rebalance needs to happen right away. We need to have enough time to consider all the options and the board has enough time to be educated about all the data,” said James.
Rosenthal also suggested they look at why students are leaving the district for charter or private schools or just going outside the district. He also said they need better data on suggested programs.
“Early college sounds great, but I would like to see success rates. I don’t want to just put something in and find out it has 20 percent success in the region. Just like we’ve been missing information all along here, I can’ t go on nothing and I don’t want to be in that situation. You can’t make smart decisions,” he said.
In his first day of summer message, Dupre stated, “I am thankful that the community and our board members have engaged in thoughtful, honest and frank discussions that have caused us to examine – and re-examine – the way we serve our students in our schools. You can find out more about the board-approved recommendations that will be included in the updated Facilities Master Plan on the Fort Bend ISD website. Following this facilities planning work, the administration will continue to collaborate with the Bond Oversight Committee to prioritize capital needs that are included in the plan to then develop a possible bond referendum.”
Other actions taken during the June 18 board meeting include:
• Adopted the recommendation to use available elementary capacity in the Marshall and Willowridge high school feeder patterns to implement innovative instructional programming that improves student outcomes, expands choice opportunities, and increases utilization and marginal revenue.
• Adopted the recommendation to include funding for a high school for approximately 2,700 students in the next bond program.
• Adopted the recommendation to use available high school capacity at Marshall High School and Willowridge High School to implement innovative instructional programming that improves student outcomes, expands choice opportunities, and increases utilization and marginal revenue.
• Rescinded previous action on May 14 to recommend construction of a 12 classroom addition at Fort Settlement Middle School, and recommended the rebalancing of enrollment at Fort Settlement Middle School and First Colony Middle School at the appropriate time.