William James Middle School looks and acts like a building that was constructed almost 100 years ago in the 1920s.
The air conditioning is hit or miss every August. It’s not energy efficient either. Some students are relegated to the seven portable buildings sitting on the campus grounds.
Now, in the 2020s, William James Middle School is set for a major $53.4 million renovation. Voters on Nov. 2 signed off on the largest piece of a four-part $1.5 billion bond package — the largest ever proposed and passed in Fort Worth ISD’s history — that supporters and officials say will help improve student performance.
Proposition A was narrowly approved with 50.1% voters for and 49.9% against, according to unofficial election results. It was approved with a margin of 42 votes. The item calls for more than $1.2 billion to renovate middle schools and build three new elementary campuses.
Propositions B, C and D all focused on improving extracurricular facilities and were defeated.
This is the first time since at least 1999 that Fort Worth ISD has not seen the entirety of a bond proposal earn voter approval, according to state records. Unlike previous bond elections, a 2019 state law required Fort Worth ISD to separate its extracurricular initiatives and campus construction into individual ballot measures.
Board President Tobi Jackson was glad voters approved the biggest component of the bond package. She’s thinking of the current and future students who will be able to take advantage of refreshed middle schools and new elementary campuses that the bond will finance.
“They have always been in buildings that are 40, 50 and 60 years old — their parents were in the same buildings,” Jackson told the Fort Worth Report. “To think about our students starting in a new building, can you imagine how that will improve students?”
Three other propositions were in the bond proposal:
◾ Proposition B proposed spending $98.3 million to upgrade fine arts centers; 54.1% of voters were against.
◾ Proposition C was $105 million and would have funded the construction of three 5,000-seat stadiums; 66.3% of voters said no.
◾ Proposition D set aside $76.2 million to upgrade existing athletic facilities; 58% of voters rejected it.
Student outcomes, bond size concerns
Ahead of Election Day, some Fort Worth ISD residents told trustees at their October meeting they could not approve the construction of sports facilities when academics have taken a hit.
Student outcomes also were a concern for some business leaders. Prior to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s bond endorsement, business leaders told chamber leaders they weren’t sure they could throw their support behind Fort Worth ISD’s proposal.
Some community members in August, when the school board called for the bond election, raised red flags over what they saw as the lack of public input in assembling the four-part proposal.
Even some trustees were worried about the bond not reflecting community needs. Board Secretary CJ Evans was the sole dissenting vote on calling for the bond election because she thought the district could tackle everything it wanted through a smaller proposal.
“We could have used more options. We could have used more community input on this bond,” board member Anael Luebanos said in August.
Residents across Fort Worth ISD expressed concern about how the bond will affect their property taxes. District officials and supporters have touted that the bond will not increase the debt service tax rate, one of two rates that make up the total property tax. The current debt service rate, which goes toward paying off the district’s debt, is 29.2 cents.
Next year, residents likely will have higher tax bills to Fort Worth ISD because of increasing property appraisals. This year, appraisals grew by 8.2%.
The Rev. Charles Johnson spearheaded the pro-bond Our Kids Our Future political action committee. Johnson, a public education advocate who also leads Pastors for Texas Children, says the upgraded campuses were long overdue. A growing city like Fort Worth deserves schools that are the best buildings in its neighborhoods, he said.
“The values of their homes are going up,” Johnson said. “My taxes are going to reflect that, but it doesn’t require an increase in the tax rate. It’s the right thing to do.”
Construction companies fund PAC
Our Kids Our Future raised $224,950 to rally support for the bond. That is 51.7% more money than the $148,315 the Citizens for Classroom PAC raised as it pushed for the district’s 2017 bond.
More than 63% of the $224,950 Our Kids Our Future raised through Oct. 25 came from companies that previously worked for Fort Worth ISD, according to a Report analysis of the group’s Oct. 25 and Oct. 4 campaign finance reports.
Hellas Construction, a sports facilities construction company, was the biggest donor; it donated $20,000. The Austin-based company last year was awarded a nearly $3.3 million contract to resurface the Clark Field track and reconstruct the tracks at five middle schools.
This year’s bond package was based on a 2017 needs assessment by Procedeo Group Joint Venture. Procedeo and its parent company, CORE Construction Services of Texas, donated a combined $8,000 to the Our Kids Our Future PAC.
Thomas Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, previously told the Report it is a common pattern to see companies with a history of working with a school district donating money to a pro-bond PAC. He noted, however, donating to the PAC is not a guarantee a company will get a contract.
“It’s pretty hard to screw up a school bond election in a reasonably prosperous economy,” Marshall said.
District officials are hopeful the improved middle schools will play a part in turning around student performance.
“Investment in our school facilities does have a positive impact on students, faculty and staff,” Scribner said.
That was a point Johnson and Jackson echoed. Johnson, a pastor, also framed the bond as the moral thing to do to help children.
Still, thousands of residents voted against the $1.5 billion bond package. Johnson plans to show them why the bond is so important and needed. He wants to give them tours of their neighborhood schools and talk to teachers and principals.
“When you do that, the light comes on and sometimes you change minds,” Johnson said. “Honest people have honest disagreements. That’s what our democracy is all about.”
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com 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.