The Humble ISD bond issue passed overwhelmingly May 5. The issuance of $575 million in bonds “for the construction, acquisition, and equipment of school buildings and the purchase of sites for school buildings” was approved by a 74 percent majority of voters.

Approximately 6,600 voters decided on the $575 million bond. Most people voted early, with voter turnout fairly low on Election Day, May 5. For example, fewer than 50 people cast a vote at Humble City Hall, even though it was designated as the voting location for six precincts.

Unofficial results show that 4,883 people, or 73.77 percent, voted for the bond with 1,736, or 26.23 percent, voting against it.

“Our community works collaboratively to make this the best district for children,” Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen said. “I see that in so many ways – from parents volunteering in schools, to thousands of community members voting to invest in growth, buildings and infrastructure for students, to Texan Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram providing a car to our Teacher of the Year. Humble ISD is family, and I could not be more grateful to the community for coming out to vote and being supportive of our school district. I especially want to thank the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee members for giving so much of their time for our students.”

Humble ISD ran the election for the bond without the assistance and funding typically provided by Harris County, too busy with runoff elections this year and unable to provide the capacity to support the bond election. The election alone may end up costing nearly double of what it normally would if Harris County were participating. While the district normally contributes about $50,000, this year they budgeted up to $110,000.

A pro-bond political action committee, Humble ISD Vote, worked hard in the last few months to promote the bond and get voters out to the polls. The familiar, soothing voice of former Humble ISD Superintendent Guy Sconzo was heard on frequent robocalls, urging voters that a bond was long overdue. The district hasn’t had a bond election since 2008, when Sconzo was in the superintendent role.

The political action committee was well-financed by companies likely hoping to get a piece of the big $575 million pie. In the April 27 preliminary filing with the Texas Ethics Commission, four construction and engineering companies were the committee's main donors, each giving $2,500: Dally & Associates, Drymalla Construction Company, Purcell Construction, and Satterfield & Pontikes Construction, Inc. The final donor report will be filed on or before July 15 to disclose any additional donors.

Pro-bond information touted the need for the bond in response to anticipated district growth. While the district is projected to add 10,000 students by the year 2025, actual growth is slightly less robust, meaning fewer families contributing to the tax base than anticipated. Needs about purported growth lead some voters to question components of the bond. For example, many parents expressed anger on social media that a new seventh high school was not in the bond package, citing the district’s massive anticipated growth and current overcrowding in certain high schools. However, the district says a new high school is not needed until 2022.

In the fall, the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee was formed to mull over and recommend projects for the bond. Based on information provided by the district, the committee excluded the high school from its recommended bond package. Instead, it will most certainly be considered for the next bond package that will occur in three- to five-years time.

Some voters commented on social media that certain district employees felt influenced by Superintendent of High Schools Trey Kraemer into supporting the bond, particularly at Atascocita High, where some teachers and staff were angry about the self-described paltry allocations to their school. Kraemer responded to The Tribune, saying that he was at the high school to encourage people to become informed and to vote, and that some school employees did express discontent over the lack of a new high school.

“Voting is a personal choice; in the end each person makes their own selection in secret at the ballot box,” Kraemer said.

The committee was open to the public, but about one-third of committee members were district employees. Many school principals served on the committee, strongly advocating for their pet projects. District spokesperson Jamie Mount said it was not out of the ordinary for this kind of heavy participation, given that district employees also have students in the district, so they also wear the hat of concerned parent.

Committee member Christopher Herron said that he was pleased that the board chose to involve the community in the bond process and that fellow committee members “were energized and made smart comments and shrewd observations.” However, Herron was concerned that “not all of the projects have been fully vetted to a standard I expected to see. Basic data about operating budgets and expected costs was missing.”

His hope is that the school board will provide more cost analysis to the community as the bond goes forward. Otherwise, Herron said, “Downsides in the future could include  learning  that projects become unfeasible because of factors not presented to the committee. Otherwise, this project selection exercise could be nothing more than the school board issuing over a half of a billion dollars in bonds based on speculation, whims and desires.”

In the end, the committee presented two $600-million bond packages; the board of trustees elected to go forward with a slightly more conservative number of $575 million. Two committee members, Robert Scarfo and Deborah Rose Miller, volunteered to be the final presenters of the bond package at a school board meeting. Later, the two went on to serve prominent roles in the pro-bond political action committee. Miller is a former Magnolia ISD board member and Scarfo previously served on the Humble ISD board.

Voter opinions about the items in the bond ran the gamut. Clearly the majority of voters thought every project was necessary while others felt the list had very few needs but many wants, like third gymnasiums for each high school and turf for sports fields.

Other voters questioned the seemingly inflated prices of the bond line items. Several people commented on the steep $6 million cost of adding 10 classrooms to Atascocita High School, which is the district’s alternative to building a seventh high school, saying that the cost of each classroom was over a half million dollars. Some voters calculated the cost of the new Ag Barn at $290 cost per square foot, lamenting the figures as multitudes more than the price per square foot of their own homes.

Some voters took the 30,000-foot view, looking not at individual line item projects but at the gargantuan debt load the $575 million bond would bring. Now that the bond has passed, the total principal and interest that the district would repay between 2018 and 2054 is nearly $2 billion ($1,876,300,000). The figure assumes no early payoff, but district spokesperson Jamie Mount commented that the district does regularly pay bonds off early to reduce its interest debt. The actual repayment that Humble ISD would make depends on when and how many bonds are sold, what the interest rate is at the time of sale, and how long the bonds are held.

The bond election did have some organized effort to dissuade voters. An anonymous anti-bond postcard was mailed to voters warning about the debt load, but in the end, this effort was no match for the well-organized and well-funded pro-bond political action committee.

The pro-bond committee distributed flyers and postcards which prominently stated that the annual school tax rate will not increase as a result of the passage of the 2018 Humble ISD bond, and that is true. It means that a tax rate increase over the current $1.52 per $100 valuation is not necessary to fund the bond. Furthermore, the board stated they hoped they could keep the tax rate until 2023. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the tax rate won’t increase for other reasons. With the current schedule for debt retirement, Humble ISD could have lowered the tax rate. However, with the post-Harvey uncertainty and the need for the bond and additional capital investment, the district really could not function properly with a lower tax rate.

In April, the board voted to reappraise property tax values for 2017 to support those taxpayers impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Approximately 4,000 of 80,000 properties were affected, so taxpayers who experience lower property values will get a property tax refund check from the district. The reappraisal only applies to the tax period of Aug. 23 to Dec. 31, 2017. The district is waiting for the Harris County Appraisal District to finish their appraisals, which were supposed to be released in April. While many area appraisals have been posted, those for the flooded areas have not.

A school bond is similar to a home mortgage in that it allows Humble ISD to purchase land and build and renovate facilities by spreading those costs over the 30-year life (or a subset) of the bond. Passage of the bond authorizes the district to spend this money, but if the financial picture changes, or student growth in the district slows down, the board is not required to sell the bonds.

 

Jacqueline Havelka
Author: Jacqueline HavelkaEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
I am a rocket scientist turned writer. I worked at Lockheed Martin-Johnson Space Center for many years managing experiments on the Space Station and Shuttle, and I now own my own firm, Inform Scientific, specializing in technical and medical writing and research program management. I am a contributing correspondent to The Tribune, a Kingwood resident for 12 years, and proud mom to two Aggie sons.

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