In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, Fort Worth ISD school board President Tobi Jackson talks about the $1.2 billion bond proposition voters approved this month.
The district proposed four propositions. Proposition A was the only proposal voters approved. It won by 57 votes. The $1.2 billion bond will fund middle school renovations and several new elementary schools. The three other proposals focused on extracurricular facilities.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Jacob Sanchez: It’s official: Proposition A, which will fund middle-school improvements and several new elementary campuses, has passed. What’s your reaction to that passing, and what’s going through your mind now that the district has it officially.
Tobi Jackson: Well, first is with immediacy. We must go to the public and communicate what the benefits are and what their options are for choices.
That’s just at the forefront of my mind right now. This is a wonderful opportunity to engage our public.
And the other thing that’s going through my mind is to be so thankful to the public for 80% of the dollars that we placed before them, on behalf of our children. They approved them and they approved them in a sequential manner. They know we just completed the reconstruction of the high schools. And they saw, this is the reconstruction of the secondary schools.
It’ll be the whole portfolio if secondary is completely reconstructed, and that’s good for our kids. That’s good for attracting families to Fort Worth, business to Fort Worth. And most of all, educating our students and keeping our employees tenured here. Nice facilities do much for many.
Sanchez: Were you surprised by the close result for Prop A? It was 57 votes and then the outright rejection of the other three props
Jackson: I was expecting Prop A to pass with a small margin. And that was the prop I cared most about because we own those buildings and they are very expensive to keep up in the condition they’re currently in, be that plumbing, HVAC, general condition of foundation, masonry work on the outside, internal sheetrock, those kinds of things.
Even the lighting that can be converted to LED, the wiring and the vermin that infest in our buildings because they’re so old. So I knew Prop A had to go and I was expecting a little bit higher margin, but I’m very appreciative of the margin that we have.
Sanchez: What do you think the message is that Fort Worth ISD voters sent to the district and to the school board?
Jackson: I believe that the voters strongly emphasized they want completion of these secondary schools. They want schools prepared where we can improve academics. And they truly said, ‘We’re not against fine arts or athletic stadiums, but let’s work here first.’
Of course, with the economy, as it is, unemployment is up a little bit nationwide. Inflation is up. We don’t exactly know where this economy is going. While a bond is very good for us to spend our money here locally with contractors. It is also of great concern if we overextend ourselves.
We didn’t overextend ourselves to a point that future boards are encumbered with debt and they will have options. They’ll have an option for a mini bond if they want to do it, or they can hold for four to five years.
Sanchez: It seems like what the voters said was focus on, it sounds like what you’re saying too, is we’re going to focus on these meat-and-potato issues right now because they’re the most important things facing our kids.
Jackson: Absolutely. That is a great way to describe it. It is meat and potatoes, and we don’t need any dessert. And if you’re going to get dessert, it needs to be fruit. Or we’ll do it how they do it in Italy with a salad at the end, but you’re not going to get anything extra.
The four elementary schools are extra, and that’s not in the secondary school portfolio, but they’re very needed, especially Ventana out in Benbrook. They will benefit from the school that will be built. And had we not passed it, they would be experiencing supreme overcrowding with the number of housing developments, rooftops that are going up.
Sanchez: So with this narrow passing of Prop A and, again, the rejection of the three other props, how could this bond package have been improved? What could have been done better to sell it?
Jackson: Well, I can tell you the staff worked as hard as they could to get this message out. What I believe we could have done better is follow the protocol that we followed in the 2017 bond, which was one of the most successful bonds that we’ve had.
It was right up there with some other bonds of recent that have been highly successful. We could have gone out for a year, and done community meetings and asked what the community wanted. Most importantly, ask what students wanted, ask what principals and employees want. Talk to our maintenance department and say, ‘What are the No. 1, 2 and 3 three things that you’re working on consistently that we need to repair?’
While we did a good needs assessment, I think we could’ve done a much better job of communicating for a longer period of time in the community. The frequency of the message in a compacted or intense amount of time was good, but the duration should have been extended to allow more people to hear the message, have time to assimilate it and think about it. Because I think if they had, we would have had a higher margin.
I accept responsibility for that. I could have done a better job myself.
Sanchez: How will that shape how the district and trustees communicate Proposition A as it actually comes to fruition over the next few years?
Jackson: Well, I have three ideas on that. No. 1 is we need to go out, as I said earlier, with immediacy and talk to our employees, our community, our students, and let them know what’s coming. Because the vision is good; the vision is great. Now, we need to bring that down to the campus level and find out what the true needs are. We also need to look at the census within the schools.
And I think we need to get out and talk to people and find out what their true needs are. Then once we know, deliver what the expectations are and gain agreement. So many times people are very pleased with the buildings, but they say, ‘Why didn’t we do this? Or we should’ve done this larger.’ If we are better at delivering a consistent message of expectations, we’ll have a better outcome overall. And that gives a better share of voice for Fort Worth ISD, because we are doing great work and our employees are doing great work, but we could use that share of voice.
Sanchez: And with that shared voice, it would help whatever the next bond is, whether it’s in four years, five years, whatever the time frame is.
Jackson: I agree it would help. I think also the experiences in the ’17 bond (will help). For people to share what it’s like to go to a brand new high school because these were not remodeled, these were reconstructed.
Look at Eastern Hills High School. I went to school there. I lived two blocks from the school. I have my whole life. And I get lost at Eastern Hills High School now, and that’s a good thing.
We need to talk about what were the wins in those reconstructions and what did we miss, if we missed anything. I don’t know that we did, but if we did, let’s learn now before we start on this secondary process.
Sanchez: What will the district do with the three other propositions that failed? Will you try to find other funding sources to bring these upgrades to art and athletic facilities? Because I understand they need as much help as the actual other parts of the bond.
Jackson: Clark Stadium is in great condition. Hanley Field was just rebuilt. Again, the ’13 bond, we added new dressing rooms. So I think we can move along just fine with what we have and appreciate it and expand as we complete this secondary middle school bond with these four elementary schools.
I think we haven’t had those discussions yet. It would be forward of me to express my opinion. I certainly have thoughts, but I think that’s a joint discussion between administration and then administration and the board.
Sanchez: What oversight will we have for Proposition A ? It’s $1.2 billion. It’s a lot of money.
Jackson: So great question. And last night during the board meeting, we approved maintaining the two financial advisers that we had during the 2017 bond. It was recommended that we go to one financial adviser by the superintendent and the CFO. However, the board compromised and agreed that we could stay with the current arrangement because the 2017 bond was highly successful.
The management of it fiscally and physically was there in the 2017 bond. We need to go with what we know and that’s what we did. So I was very proud of the board last night for coming to a consensus and all the board worked together very well, very positively and very respectfully. That’s important and that’s good work on behalf of kids and the community and our city.
So I thank the board for that, especially in light of the passing of Trustee Daphne Brookins. It was nice to see us come together and work hard because that’s what she would have wanted.
Sanchez: Will there be some sort of citizen oversight committee? The 2017 bond has one. Will this one have one?
Jackson: Absolutely. We’ve had an oversight committees for the last two bonds. Some fantastic citizens have stepped up to be involved each time and others have had their arms bent a little bit to come on board, but once they get there, they love it.
Citizens oversight committee is popular and people want to be appointed to it. I get calls weekly, and I’m excited about that part because that brings in experts that can look at the work we’re doing, hear about it, share that in the community, but also give their input as to their industry experiences and where they think we could expand. It’s a great community partnership. I’m very appreciative for the fact that we put that together for the ’13 bond, ’17 and now for the 2021 bond.
Sanchez: With Trustee Brookins passing, what is her legacy?
Jackson: Trustee Brookins’ legacy is nationally, statewide, countywide and citywide, as well as within the 200 square miles of Fort Worth ISD.
I can say this. She was a nationally ranked and All-American shot put thrower. And she, I have a picture. She sent me a picture of the framed picture in her office, and she’d made me promise I would never share it, but sometimes you have to break promises.
I was just so proud to serve with her because she had the heart of a champion and that is her legacy. And that heart of a champion was heart for children and for partnerships that lifted children.
Where she and I truly became sisters in our work was that we both wanted to build preceptorships, externships and internships for students. That’s both of our love. We were working on a project together, and I hope to complete it. And that is to have an input of need by students and input of desired preceptorships or internships that business would like to extend to students and have them match. I’m just working on getting someone to put the coding together, so I don’t have to be the coder.
Sanchez: Anything else you want to mention to our listeners?
Jackson: Just want to, again, thank the public for supporting Fort Worth ISD. This is a tough time in public education, and I want them all to remember that many of us in Fort Worth and in this state and in the United States were educated in public schools.
I’m a proud product of Fort Worth ISD. Both of my children are; one is a graduate from 2018 and the other will graduate this year. I brought them both over from private school. I’m very proud of the work we do in Fort Worth ISD, and I’m proud to represent Fort Worth ISD every day. I’m always open to answer any questions and take any call, and I appreciate every call and every person that engages with us. And I thank you, Jacob, for always being ahead of the game on your interviews and on your questions.
Sanchez: Thank you, Tobi. Thank you for taking the time for this and doing this in a different format for an interview.
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.