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Texas Schools Asked Voters For $18 Billion In New Debt To Fix Its Campuses. They Largely Said Yes.

ODESSA — Delma Abalos was stunned.

In the years she has served as a vice president of the school board in Ector County, there was never enough cash to pay for every pressing maintenance repair that came up. She would fret over every loose wire, broken air conditioning unit, or portable classroom, never mind building new facilities.

The lifelong Odessan had attempted over the last decade to bring together her community to create a blueprint she and the school board would translate into a bond proposal, one of few ways schools can obtain cash for large-scale infrastructure projects by asking voters to approve new debt.

Voters said no. Until Tuesday night.

Ector County Independent School District teacher and political consultant Arlo Chavira, far left, ECISD Superintendent Scott Muri, second from right, and ECISD School Board Trustee Tammy Hawkins, far right, read election results during an election night watch party Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Odessa.
Ector County Independent School District teacher and political consultant Arlo Chavira, left, ECISD Superintendent Scott Muri, second from right, and ECISD School Board Trustee Tammy Hawkins, right, read election results during an election night watch party on Nov. 7. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Ector County voters surprised Abalos this week when they approved the school board’s plea for over $400 million to finance extensive upkeep in the local schools, which public school officials and civic leaders have said was long overdue.

“It’s unbelievable,” Abalos said at the school district’s watch party. “But now the real work starts.”

[In West Texas, schools hope skeptical voters will OK debt to upgrade crumbling, overcrowded buildings]

Similar scenes took place across Texas as school leaders crowded around laptops examining results of bond elections trickle in. Seventy-five Texas school districts put bond measures on the ballot, asking voters to allow districts to borrow nearly $18 billion, according to the Texas Bond Review Board.

According to an early analysis of results by The Texas Tribune, at least 50% of those proposals passed and some 30% failed. Failed bond proposals included the construction of new athletic facilities, such as swimming pools and football stadiums, and some new school buildings.

The state agency that tracks bonds said it would finalize its data after the election results are certified in the coming weeks.

In Conroe ISD, one of the fastest-growing school districts, voters largely approved the district’s request for nearly $2 billion, approving three out of four bond proposals. That money — which represents the largest bond the district has ever passed — will fund eight new schools to help alleviate overcrowding. Voters in the Houston suburb, however, rejected a proposal that would have allowed the district to take on new debt to build an outdoor swimming pool.

“Any time you get the community to align with 75% of what you’re doing, that’s a huge win,” said Skeeter Hubert, school board president. “The biggest win will be for our students.”

This year’s voter approval rate is a turnabout from two years ago, when only 46% of school bond proposals passed in November 2021, the first time in more than 10 years that more school bonds failed than passed. Historically, school bond proposals in Texas have passed at a rate between 70 and 80 percent.

Ector County elections officials move ballots and voting equipment into the county annex after polls closed on election night Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Odessa.
Ector County elections officials move ballots and voting equipment into the county annex after polls closed on election night in Odessa. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

The November 2021 election followed a 2019 state law requiring school districts to call bond elections “tax increases,” even if the district kept its tax rates the same. Observers suggested the new requirement led to the decrease in voter approval.

Voters across the state also approved a proposal this week that would drive down property taxes collected by schools, with the promise that state lawmakers would backfill that money with sales tax revenue.

And this year’s election takes place against a backdrop of political infighting over public school funding. Gov. Greg Abbott made school vouchers a top priority this year, but lawmakers ended a third special session this week without passing a school voucher bill. The governor has called lawmakers back for a fourth session.

School vouchers would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to pay for private school tuition, potentially creating an exodus from the public school system. A decline in enrollment would result in losses in public school funding, which is in part determined by average daily attendance.

Back in West Texas, the Odessa school district school board did not get everything they asked for. Voters approved plans to build a new career and technical center, a school for special needs students, additional school buses, district-wide infrastructure projects, and a new middle school in West Odessa, an unincorporated community adjacent to Odessa. Voters said no to upgrades to the district’s sports facilities, including Ratliff Stadium, where the Permian Panthers of “Friday Night Lights” glory play.

Scott Muri, the school district’s superintendent, said the evening’s results reflected the community’s desire to invest in schools.

It’s a “huge victory for the 33,500 students and the generations of kids that will follow,” Muri said.

Voters in nearby Midland County also approved a bond proposal for their school district, despite an effort by billionaire Tim Dunn to persuade the community to reject it.

It was the first time since 2012 either West Texas school district won voter approval for new debt to improve their school facilities. The school districts, which serve a combined 61,500 students, have not kept up with the pace with which neighboring schools — including districts in Andrews and Fort Stockton — have approved school funding through successful bond elections of their own.

Ector County Independent School District School Board President Delma Abalos hugs political action committee chairwoman Sara Moore after one of the bond propositions passed to construct a new middle school and make existing repairs during an election night watch party on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Odessa.
Ector County Independent School District School Board Vice President Delma Abalos hugs political action committee chairwoman Sara Moore after one of the bond propositions passed to construct a new middle school and make existing repairs. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

The propositions on the ballot resembled previous requests from the school districts, including sweeping infrastructure and maintenance repairs, new schools and upgrades to sporting facilities. Public school officials have said the repairs were long overdue, arguing the school’s aging infrastructure isn’t keeping up with the rising number of students enrolling in the district.

Opponents of the bond in Midland said the school district had yet to earn voters’ trust.

Rachel Walker, board president of Move Midland — a nonprofit with ties to Dunn — said the group’s grievance was not with the size of the bond.

“We recognize there are many changes that need to happen in the facilities and that those do come at a cost,” Walker told The Texas Tribune. But the Midland school district, Walker argued, could tap into an existing surplus of funds to address infrastructure concerns. Walker said the district should instead shift its attention to academic performance as a means to earn voter confidence.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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