This commentary appeared in the McAllen Monitor on February 15, 2015.
On Jan. 26, the McAllen Independent School District Board of Trustees met to consider asking voters to approve a bond that could cost as much as $440 million. But instead of meeting the essential needs of McAllen’s schoolchildren, the bond could quadruple existing debt and result in monstrous property tax increases — all in pursuit of fancier facilities.
The school board on Feb. 23 is expected to decide whether to call a bond election. Before they do, however, the taxpayers of McAllen ISD need to take a serious look. According to a Monitor article, such a bond sale could increases taxes by 31.3 cents per $100 property valuation — thus costing the owner of a $200,000 home an additional $624 per year in taxes. That would bring the school district tax rate to $1.477 per $100 valuation. — a 26.8 percent increase.
The bond seems to have some justification — after all, many of the facilities within the district are aging. There are almost certainly some upgrades that could improve the safety and usefulness of these campuses.
However, a quick look at the bond presentation, made by the Facilities Forecast Advisory Committee and which is available on McAllen ISD website, reveals that the district is going much further.
Much of the presentation focuses on how facilities should reflect a vague principle called “21st century learning.”
This amorphous term underlines the bond’s questionable basis. And Board President Erica de la Garza-Lopez told Action 4 News: “We know that we are losing kids and enrollment to newer, bigger, sexier facilities in the area.”
So apparently the board’s solution is to compete by building their own bigger, sexier schools. Because if you study the bond presentation, that’s exactly what they’re proposing.
Gone are the unfashionable and passé “boxy” looks of the old schools. In their stead would be more modern and costly designs.
Gonzalez Elementary School, for instance, would gain a towering, multi-arched entryway. De Leon Middle School would switch from boring red bricks to stylish brown bricks and have a huge slab jutting out from the middle of the building, according to drawings released by the district. Memorial High School it seems would emulate an airport departure terminal, complete with a tower that appears ready to monitor incoming and outgoing flights.
But don’t worry. It’s all for the kids.
Later in the presentation, the committee took the bizarre step of devoting an entire slide to defending the district from allegations that it wastefully spent money on iPads. Huh?
The top of the slide, entitled “Addressing iPads,” exclaims, “$20 Million iPad Expenditure Reported by the San Antonio Express-News Was Misleading.”
This is a serious charge to level at one of the state’s largest newspapers, so it merited finding the article in question, which was published in October 2011.
Was the $20 million figure inaccurate? In the story, it’s clear the figure was given to the reporter by the district itself. Is the bond committee disputing the figure? If so, why is this worth the attention of the committee? Why are they so defensive?
The slide goes on to point out that they actually spent “$10 million over the last four years” on iPads.
In the last few slides, the presentation makes multiple extraordinary and baseless claims about the impact such a bond would have. These claims, too numerous to reprint, range from: “MISD will attract students from other area school districts,” to claiming the bond will “increase value of our homes and businesses,” and “increase inflow of new residents.”
The source for this information is nowhere to be found. The committee then claims that the $440 million spent would boost the economy by $1.1 billion and add 14,830 new jobs. Who knew that debt was so good at boosting the economy?
I believe this bond package is “all hat, no cattle.” The wild claims the school district is making should not inspire confidence, but instead raise eyebrows. McAllen ISD should know that its taxpayers are smarter than that.
Jess Fields is the senior policy analyst in the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He is a former College Station city councilman. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.