Fort Worth ISD supporters will have only three months to sell the biggest bond proposal in district history.
School board members expressed concerns Tuesday about the district’s approach but emphasized the great need and said the $1.5 billion bond project would be accomplished without a tax rate increase.
Before voting yes on the plan, Fort Worth ISD trustee Anael Luebanos expressed concern over the lack of public input. The city is planning a bond election next May for $500 million, and officials already are having community input for that $500 million bond, he noted.
“Here we are asking $1.5 billion and three months away from a November election,” Luebanos said. “However, this is the only proposal brought forward. … We could have used more options. We could have used more community input on this bond.”
Luebanos was among the eight school board members who voted in favor of calling an election on the proposed bond that would bring renovations to all Fort Worth ISD middle schools, build a new elementary school in Benbrook and upgrade athletic, fine arts and recreational facilities. Board Secretary CJ Evans was the sole trustee to vote against the proposal because she thought the district could tackle the facility upgrades through a smaller bond.
The bond is the most expensive Fort Worth ISD has ever proposed, according to district officials. Voters have been receptive to previous bond proposals. Four years ago, 70% of voters approved a $750 million bond. Voters also approved a nearly $490 million bond in 2013 and a $520 million package in 2007.
“At this point, I urge my colleagues to actively campaign for this needed bond for our schools and to relay the message that this is not a tax increase for our taxpayers,” Luebanos said.
Carlos Turcios, a Fort Worth ISD graduate, told trustees he was concerned about the bond’s size. He said the district needs to focus on improving student achievement before seeking voter approval for such a large proposal.
One former school board member voiced support for the bond.
“It’s a lot of money, but the fact that there is no increase in taxes for the taxpayers is profound,” former trustee Ashley Paz said. “Our middle school children do not have another day to wait to have their facilities upgraded.”
‘This is different’
In previous bond programs, residents were brought into the process early on before trustees even called for an election, board President Tobi Jackson said.
“I don’t recall a bond passing, and then we go ask the community,” Jackson said. “We usually ask the community what they need, jointly agree and discuss, and then come in and vote. This is different.”
The bond package was assembled through an evaluation by Procedeo Group Joint Venture. The Fort Worth-based construction project management company examined the conditions of middle schools, high school athletic and fine arts facilities and some elementary campuses. District spokesman Clint Bond said Procedeo also conducted an equity study for buildings used by the entire district.
Bond pointed out that the 2017 bond included community input that was used to guide long-term district plans for instruction. That, he said, also drove what construction projects the district would tackle.
“The philosophy and commitment have not changed. Our goal is to align our middle schools with our high school facilities to promote collaborative learning spaces with a focus on updated education specifications,” the spokesman said.
Equity was a concern for trustee Daphne Brookins.
“I want to make sure that the money is spread out equitable, that the schools that really need to be renovated really get what they need and not passed over or not put a Band-Aid on them,” Brookins, the board’s second vice president, said. “I want to make sure we use the funding properly, and we use it for the schools that really need it.”
Superintendent Kent Scribner stressed Fort Worth ISD is committed to ensuring campuses are equitable and that older schools are on par with newer facilities.
Camille Rodriguez, a former Fort Worth ISD trustee, opposed the school board calling for a bond election. She said the assessment administrators used to build this proposal is too old and accounts for too many students.
Enrollment has dropped 10,570 students since the 2016-17 school year, which is when the district last asked voters to approve a bond. Last school year, 76,858 students attended Fort Worth ISD schools, a decrease attributed in part to parents of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children choosing not to send their kids to school during the pandemic.
“This cannot be attributed to just COVID,” said Rodriguez, who lost her seat in 2008.
Effect on tax rate
Mike Ball, the district’s chief financial officer, said administrators have been developing the $1.5 billion figure for well over a year. Administrators aimed to have the biggest possible bond without impacting the tax rate, he said.
Several trustees emphasized Tuesday evening that the bond, if approved, would not increase the tax rate.
“Based on data-driven assumptions about property value rates of growth, future interest rates, and continuation of the district’s historical practices on bond repayment term of 25 years, we believe the bond program can be accomplished without any increase in the current (debt service) tax rate of $0.292,” Bond said, referring to one of the rates that form Fort Worth ISD’s overall property tax.
The proposed tax rate for the 2021-22 school year is $1.34 per $100 valuation, a 3-cent decrease from the current rate of $1.37. The school board is expected to consider the rate at its Aug. 24 meeting.
Although the rate is decreasing as required by the state’s school finance laws, that does not necessarily mean lower tax bills in the new school year because of higher property appraisals.
This year, the average net taxable value of a home in Fort Worth ISD was $176,430, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District. Under the proposed property tax, that resident would owe $2,369.81 in taxes only to the school district — an $111.62 increase from last year. In 2020, the average Fort Worth ISD home had a value of $163,827, which is $12,603 lower than the new average.
“When it comes down to what we’re doing as far as board action, what we’re doing is giving it back to the voters to decide,” said Quinton Phillips, the board’s first vice president. “We can let them know what we’re going to do and how the money is going to be spent so they can have an educated decision.”
Four propositions on Nov. 2 ballot
On the ballot, voters will see the bond proposal split among four propositions. Proposition A, the largest, calls for more than $1.2 billion to renovate middle schools and build a new elementary school.
“When I walked through some of our Fort Worth ISD middle schools, they looked exactly the same as when I walked through them 30 years ago,” trustee Roxanne Martinez said, adding that many middle school students transfer to other districts because of the poor state of their campuses.
Proposition B is $98.3 million and would bring upgrades to fine arts facilities across the district. Proposition C is nearly $105 million and is focused on building up the district’s stadiums. Proposition D is $76.2 million; it calls for improvements to recreational facilities, including replacing turf at stadiums.
If approved, construction could begin in 2022. The bond program was developed with a five-year planning window, which could change depending on the school board, according to district officials.
Fort Worth ISD, which cannot advocate in favor of the bond, has three months to educate voters about its $1.5 billion proposal. The stakes are high — and the board recognizes that fact.
“We can’t make a miss on this — this is the largest bond (proposal) we’ve ever passed,” Jackson said. “I want to make sure that we get this right because, to me, it feels very compressed.”
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.