Three years after a voting majority denied new school construction in Nederland, the Nederland ISD school board has proposed a new bond plan for almost $78 million worth of projects to the districts eight ailing schools, including the construction of two new school buildings.
In 2009, 79 percent of Nederland residents voted against a $120 million bond, which included four new schools and massive renovations to Nederland High School and the Bulldog Stadium.
In planning the 2012 bond proposals, the NISD school board has battled between its wariness over mistakes of the past and its desire to compete for new residents with their cross-county neighbors, Port Neches-Groves ISD, who over the past five years has built two new middle schools and made renovations to almost every district building including a brand new state-of-the-art football stadium.
Unlike in 2009, the 2012 bond election has been split into four separate proposals, two for renovations and two for schools. What NISD board president Everett Sanderson loosely calls “the bond buffet line,” allows Nederland voters to decide how much they want to invest in public school buildings.
According to Texas Education Agency, both PN-GISD and NISD have decreased enrollment significantly over the past 10 years.
PN-GISD has lost 357 students since the 2000-2001 school year, and NISD has lost 124, according to TEA.
Charles Vaughn, chairman of the Nederland Citizens Acting for Responsible Education Committee or CARE group, said his group believes that expansion of schools should be based on enrollment.
“(NISD) Enrollment has decreased in the district over the past decade,” said Vaughn. “How is it that we should build new schools if we have less students.”
Even though the majority of NISD schools are over 50 years old, the district maintains a higher enrollment than PN-GISD.
NISD finished teh 2010-2011 school year with 5,022 students, whereas PN-GISD finished with 4,667, according to TEA.
However, as new families move into the area one of the most important factors in choosing a home is quality of the schools, according to Tracy Williams, chairman of the Committee of One For All Four, a group that supports all four bonds, and the first thing they see are the conditions of the school buildings.
The Texas legislature cut school funding by $5 billion over the summer and as a result districts have been hard pressed to strengthen their other sources of funding, among the most important, enrollment numbers and district property tax revenues.
“If you continue to have property taxes go down than the school district will be worse off then they are today,” said Williams.
Unlike PN-GISD, NISD does not have a strong industrial base of tax revenue and relies more heavily on the bed-room community tax payers.
NISD currently has the lowest tax rate in the area: $1.10 per $100 value compared to PN-GISD’s $1.43 per $100 value.
That means homeowners under the age of 65 pay $336 less in property taxes for a $100,000 home than they would in PN-GISD.
If all four of the bonds pass, NISD residents would still pay $57 less in taxes than a owner of the same valued home in PN-GISD.
Homeowners 65-years or older are exempt from the bond related tax increases because of the Homestead Exemption.
Also, if all four bonds pass, the NISD school board agreed not to use an estimated $7.5 million of funds left over from unnecessary renovations to Hillcrest Elementary and C.O. Wilson Middles School.
According to Williams, this savings will decrease the tax rate by 3 percent, bringing the total tax increase from the bonds closer to 24 cents per $100 valuation.
“These are maximums we are talking about and when you get down to it, it may turn out less,” said Williams.
If approved, the new school construction could begin as early as 2013, with a possible completion date during the 2014-2015 school year, according to NISD superintendent Robert Madding.
However, if all four bonds pass the district will accrue between $70 million and $80 million in debt, to be paid off over the next 25 years.
“Do we really need to add to the collection of debt in this country,” said Vaughn.
According to Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, public school spending in Texas has outpaced student enrollment and inflation growth. Debt service is the fastest-growing category of public education spending, rising 152-percent over the last decade, the comptroller calculated.
“We don’t want more government in-debtedness, especially when we could refurbish and renovate for a fraction of the cost,” said Vaughn.
Band-Aids versus new schools
One thing both CARE and the Committee of One For All Four agree on is that the schools desperately need the renovations proposed in Propositions 1 and 2, which include new windows, security improvements, energy efficient lighting and a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning or HVAC units in all eight schools.
The renovations in Propositions 1 and 2 would also bring NISD up to compliance with some federal and state laws for accomodating disabled students.
However, the Committee of One For All Four, thinks that the renovations will not go deep enough to save Hillcrest Elementary and C. O. Wilson Middles School, the two schools proposed to be replaced in Propositions 3 and 4.
“There is a life-span on everything,” said Williams.
According to Williams, Hillcrest Elementary and C.O. Wilson Middle School were chosen because they are in a condition that renovations will not fix, with additional problems including deteriorating walls, which do not connect with the foundations slab, and old cast iron plumbing underneath the building that are not accessible, according to Williams, who said he spoke to NISD maintenance personnel.
“After you renovate these buildings you still have 40 and 50 year old buildings that you have put million dollars of new paint and new building materials into,” said Williams. “People don’t put new engines in old bodies of cars.”
However, the opposition believes that the board’s decision to add the news schools to the ballot was an afterthought, which undermines over a year’s worth of work done by a NISD research group called the Capitol Improvement Committee, made up of community members, the superintendent and two school board trustees.
Vaughn, who served on the Capital Improvement Committee, said it was their research that generated Propositions 1 and 2, to renovate all NISD schools. They did not recommend building new schools, said Vaughn.
“If your house has broken windows do you bulldoze it over?” said Vaughn. “I guess it is different when the school board gets their hands on the public’s check book.”
Money and Academics
The CARE group doubts that, in this economy, spending $70 million on new schools will create the much sought-after improvements in academic performance of NISD schools.
“There is no correlation that building new schools will increase test scores,” said Vaughn. “Money is not the issue, what is the issue is what happens in the home and in the classroom.”
However, the Committee of One for All Four said that not only will the new schools provide a more functional learning environment but also free up money in the budget that can be used for academic purposes, like teacher and personnel raises or new materials.
After the state cut revenue to NISD by almost $1 million last summer, the district avoided firing teachers and personnel only by offering early retirement incentives and either not rehiring those positions or hiring less-experienced replacements.
According to Williams, the widely-used money saving tactic has only shifted the cost onto the students and other teachers, who now are now learning from less-experienced teachers or have been placed into more crowded classrooms.
“There are vacancies, but they are not replacing the people because they are spending all of their money to keep these schools maintained and safe for the kids in them,” said Williams.
Early voting continues Monday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and Tuesday between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at Central Middle School, located at 200 17th Street in Nederland.
Election day, May 12, voting will be held between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at Central Middle School in Nederland.
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