Mixed reactions from Houston ISD trustees to idea of issuing new bonds

Money

The announcement yesterday by Houston schools Superintendent Terry Grier that now might be a good time to consider issuing additional bonds to fix school buildings in disrepair caught school board President Mike Lunceford off guard.

“I was surprised (Grier) said it,” Lunceford told Texas Watchdog in a phone interview this morning, while conceding that “we do have buildings in bad shape.”

But Lunceford said he wants to ensure any discussion and review of a new bond issue for the Houston Independent School District is conducted correctly.

He has asked Leo Bobadilla, HISD’s chief operating officer, for details on the scope of a facilities evaluation that’s on the agenda for next week’s regular monthly board meeting.

“We don’t need a new school with room for enrolling 3,000 students when the expected enrollment is only 1,200,” Lunceford said. “We need to size the facility for the expected usage.”

Grier discussed the possibility of the bond issue -- HISD’s first since the 2007 $805 million in bonds that passed with a 51 percent majority of votes -- during an interview with the Houston Chronicle. He had just completed the annual 2012 State of the Schools address to an audience of about 2,000 at the Hilton Americas Hotel.

“In 2007, Houston voters voiced their support for Houston’s children by approving an $805 million plan to build new schools, renovate older ones, and provide safety upgrades to campuses across HISD,” Grier said in his speech. “Thanks to you, our classrooms are consistently brighter, more technologically advanced, and more energy efficient than before. Across Houston, we have already opened 16 new campuses. That number will soon reach 24 and include the new Carnegie Vanguard High School. More than 100 schools have seen significant renovations.”

The superintendent could not be immediately reached for comment because Grier is out of the office today, his assistant said. Texas Watchdog left a phone message and sent Grier an e-mail requesting his thoughts on the issue.

Even though it passed at the polls, some HISD residents have said district officials did not allow their voices to be heard in the 2007 bond-referendum process.

It’s crucial that any bond discussion must take place in public because a yes vote by HISD residents “will mean a tax increase,” Lunceford said. He added that he would like an organization independent of the school district to rank and prioritize what work needs to be done, Lunceford said.

Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones agreed that the bond conversations must be public.

“There has to be full disclosure because it’s their money,” Skillern-Jones said of district voters.

Skillern-Jones, who spoke by phone from Austin where she was attending a conference, said she has not been privy to any board discussions on a new bond issue and hadn’t yet formed an opinion on it.

“There are a lot of factors to consider before going for a bond,” Skillern-Jones said. “Everything needs to be fully vetted before we introduce the idea.”

But Trustee Manuel Rodriguez said he didn’t think Grier was announcing the district was going forward with a bond referendum.

Instead, “it might be just him thinking out loud,” he said. “Maybe he’s thinking how the district should move forward in a presidential-election year, when there will be a high turnout of voters. In a non-presidential election year, the voters who come out typically would be those who oppose a bond.”

Rodriguez pointed out that many advised the board to continue to wait until the following year before finally agreeing to put the $805 million bond referendum before voters in 2007.

“Then the economy went down,” Rodriguez said. “If we didn’t pass it, we’d be sitting here twiddling our thumbs trying to maintain our facilities. But the bond has been able to keep us on track by providing jobs to the public and to the city in renewing our facilities.”

And even with the money from the bonds five years ago, the district still has needs, citing as an example the many HISD magnet schools in disrepair, Rodriguez said.

And more bonds could go beyond simply tackling schools that are falling apart, he said.

“With this bond, we could do something better,” Rodriguez said. “We could maintain the quality and appeal of our flagship schools.”

UPDATE: This story was corrected at 2:45 p.m. to reflect that Grier discussed the bond issue with the Houston Chronicle. He talked about the issue after he was asked about it by the Chronicle's Ericka Mellon. 

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Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

Photo of money by flickr user 401k, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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