Arlington voters asked to decide on ambitious school bond package

By Monica S. Nagy -

April 15, 2014 05:11 PM

The $663.1 million Arlington school bond package on the May 10 ballot will be the largest in Tarrant County history and covers technology, fine arts and transportation.

It includes two new elementary schools and upgrades at virtually every building in the district. There are plans for new centers for career and technology, fine arts and athletics.

It is an ambitious plan wrapped into one big package. And supporters of the bond issue are gambling that this all-or-nothing approach will be successful with voters.

School district officials point out that since 1999, other districts have asked voters for more money more frequently. Fort Worth has had three bond elections totaling $1.5 billion in 15 years. Mansfield went to the polls six times to raise $951.6 million over the same time period.

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“There are some districts around the state that go back to the voters every three, four years,” said Cindy Powell, Arlington schools’ chief financial officer. Arlington last bond election was in 2009 for $197.5 million.

School Board President Bowie Hogg said the district has carefully analyzed — with citizen input — what the district wants to do, what the children need, and how much it can afford.

If voters pass the bond package, the maximum tax increase would be 15 cents from 2016-2020, which would cost over $10 a month or as much as $126 extra a year for the owner of a $100,000 home. The average home value in the district is $115,287.

“We are not financing something for 15 years, and it only has a five-year life cycle,” Hogg said. “We are not going to be, as the old saying goes, ‘Upside-down on our car.’”

But opponents say the district needs to cut all of the “frills” and stick to the basics.

Arlington activist Faith Bussey, a stay at home mom and volunteer chairwoman to the political action committee It’s OK to Vote No, Arlington, said she simply does not want her property taxes to go up and for her children to foot the bill 20 years from now.

“We don’t need to be comparing our district to other districts,” Bussey said. “Arlington is unique and we don’t need to be playing the, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,’ game. We don’t need all these fancy facilities — I don’t believe that improves education.”

Looking at the costs

If the bond issue passes, it will boost the debt. But a Star-Telegram analysis of Arlington school district debt as of April 1 revealed:

• The district currently has $461.3 million in outstanding debt dating back to the 1999 bond election, which is $7,173 per every student in the 64,304-student-district. Arlington currently has lower debt per student than surrounding districts such as Fort Worth, Mansfield, Keller, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Birdville and Carroll.

• Arlington homeowners have the third-lowest property tax rate at $1.29 in this area, behind Azle and Godley. If voters pass the bond package, the district will have the ninth-lowest rate in Tarrant County at $1.44, assuming other districts’ debt profiles stay the same.

• Sixty new positions would be created in the next five years, from $20,804-salaried attendance clerks to $86,341-salaried principals. The cost of running the facilities plus paying new employees would total $3.2 million a year. That money would be added to the district’s $468 million operating budget.

• If approved, the district will have passed $1.1 billion in bond elections since 1999, compared to Fort Worth’s $1.5 billion during the same time frame.

• It will take no more than 25 years for the $549.9 million in new facilities to be paid off if the single-proposition bond passes, no more than 12 years for the $18.3 million in new vehicles, 10 years for $9.8 million in fine arts equipment and five years for $82.6 million in technology.

Powell said the district has the second highest bond ratings from the two largest bond credit rating agencies — Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s Rating Services — because the district repays bonds over the life of the assets.

Something for everyone

The bond package includes facility upgrades for every building in the district except the new James and Barbara Adams Elementary.

“We’ve got circa 1972 athletic facilities where everyone else has state of the art,” trustee John Hibbs said. “We have a goal that 100 percent of our students will graduate on time prepared for college or careers, and what we’re not providing right now is the opportunity to excel for the large number of students that are not going to college.”

Programs like the dual credit firefighter and EMT certification program at Sam Houston High School would be moved to a $46 million Career and Technical Center. The center would have the capacity to serve up to 1,400 students a day, and expand the high-demand programs like cosmetology.

Recommendations for the career center, as well as a $32 million Fine Arts Center, $25 million Athletic Complex, and $2.5 million Agricultural Science Facility, came from a volunteer committee that spent five months analyzing the results of a facilities audit and community feedback.

“It is not a simple task to have a facility assessment,” Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos told the Star-Telegram. “In the 2009 bond we didn’t have a facility assessment, it was done mostly with staff interpretation of the needs.”

The district-wide centers will help address current over-utilization at Arlington’s high schools avoid building a new high school that would cost around $70 million, and that doesn’t include staffing and daily operations, Cavazos and Powell said.

All or nothing

When the volunteer committee finished its analysis of the district’s needs, they totaled $860 million. They dialed that back by $200 million, and told trustees the recommendations were all top priority and interdependent, Hibbs said.

They also formed their own PAC in support of the bond called Arlington First.

So the district put the entire package on one proposition instead of splitting up technology, fine arts, transportation and facilities. Hibbs said Arlington is focused on making sure its children have the access to technology, career certifications and the arts.

“What you are not going to find in this bond package, that you find in many other districts is $60 million stadiums,” he added.

Because the district placed the entire package on one proposition, they risk losing it all just like Birdville did when voters struck down its all-or-nothing $183.2 million bond package in 2013.

Mansfield, which was able to get its single bond package approved in 2011, separated a 2003 bond package that included schools, a stadium and a natatorium. The Arlington bond package includes a natatorium, too.

“The reason we did that is we knew we had to build schools for kids, and sometimes you worry about those insular things,” Beth Light, Mansfield school board president said. “We knew there was going to be some contention.”

But the $198.5 million 2011 bond package focused on tearing down 20-30 year old schools and building five new elementary schools. It had to be all or nothing, she said.

“I know we just felt like we really couldn’t separate it,” she said. “With that new House Bill 5 and endorsements, there are new needs that are needed to make the district stronger.”

Fort Worth passed its bond package in 2013 by breaking it up into three propositions. Spokesman Clint Bond said there isn’t a formula for how to put the bond on the ballot, it depends on if the board thinks the voters should have individual choice.

But Bussey and others It’s OK to Vote No activists are accusing district trustees of bullying and intimidating the voters by placing the bond package on one proposition.

“The mantra that I’m hearing is that it has to happen all at once,” Bussey said. “It’s, ‘all or nothing.’ That is simply not the case — there are things they can prioritize and take care of.”

Hibbs denies that they are bullying anyone to do anything.

“I’ve seen how that group works, but that’s where this board has stood up and said, ‘We’ll do what’s right for the children.’ I’ll take those hits. I don’t have a political aspiration beyond where I am right now,” he said.

Bond talk translator

Bond — A bond is a written obligation to repay a sum of money borrowed over a specified period of time in defined payment intervals. Municipalities, including school districts, are restricted by state law as to the purposes for which they may borrow. In Texas, this includes capital improvements — things that are permanent or nearly permanent over the long term.

Bond election — This is a procedure whereby the voters decide by ballot, whether to approve bond measures proposed by a school board. This is sometimes called a “tax ratification” election. Under Texas law a simple majority is required to approved a school bond measure. When the voters consider the measure the ballot must mention, among other things, the purpose of the bond or bond taxes, as applicable.

Bond rating — It's the credit-worthiness of the district. The lower the bond rating, the higher the interest rate the district will be required to pay in the market on the bonds. Typically, bond ratings go from AAA, the highest rating, to AA, etc.

M & O — The maintenance and operations tax rate is one component of a district’s tax rate. This part provides funds for operational expenses and includes the lion’s share of the money spent by the district for salaries, benefits, utility expenses and other outlays which go into running the district. The source of this money is local real property school taxes, state aid and federal aid, among other less significant funding sources.

I & S — The Interest and Sinking tax rate provides funds for payments on the debt that finances school facilities. The more bonded indebtedness assumed by a district, the greater the I & S tax rate will be. The term “sinking” refers to the fact that the principal on the debt gets reduced according to a schedule specified in the bond issue, much like the principal reduction which occurs when homeowners pay off their mortgage year-by-year.

General Budget — This imprecise and non-technical term is understood to mean all expenses which will be paid for in a calendar year. It may be understood as answering the question: “How much money will we be spending this year?”

Source: Lewis M. Wasserman, associate professor educational leadership and policy studies, UT Arlington