Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Giving Children a Chance at an Education Costs Money

"If we take these steps -- if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they're born until the last job they take ... America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."
-- President Barack Obama, January 25, 2011

Texas will be lucky if we don't dash expectations for every child over the next two years. The state legislature has proposed a budget that slashes expenditures on pre-kindergarten, elementary, secondary and college education. The impact on the Richardson school district (RISD) alone could be as high as $54 million.

Despite the gloomy news from Austin, locally the RISD is doing what it can to continue to provide the superior education that the RISD has been known for. That means, despite the pressure on funding for continuing operations coming from the state, the RISD is planning to continue investing in capital projects.

After the jump, news about the upcoming RISD bond election.

The RISD has prepared a list of capital items to ask voters to approve issuing bonds to pay for. The RISD has been holding a series of town hall meetings to inform the public about the proposed bond package. I attended the meeting held at JJ Pearce High School on January 25. Here are some random thoughts.

  • This was the third of four such meetings (one at each high school). About a dozen people turned out a week ago at Lake Highlands HS. Only half that number turned out at Berkner. JJ Pearce's turnout of about 50 was large in comparison, but still small in an absolute sense. I take that to mean there is no organized opposition to borrowing the money needed to keep our schools in good shape. In fact, judging by the questions asked by the public, there's little opposition at all, even lone critics.

  • The RISD has the third lowest tax rate for residential homeowners in the D/FW area. It has as good an individual bond rating as any school district in the state. All in all, the RISD is better positioned to withstand the current financial crisis than neighboring districts. Thank the watchful eyes of the school board and administrators for this.

  • The state cutback to the RISD's operating budget could go as high as $54 million, although the RISD says $19-26 million is more likely. Whether the RISD has inside information or whether its lower estimate is just wishful thinking is unknown. I think the RISD ought to get itself ready for the worst.

  • The $171 million bond package requires no increase in the tax rate. As new bonds are issued, old bonds are retired, keeping the tax rate flat.

  • Of the $171 million bond package, the bulk of it goes to things like plumbing and air conditioning and instructional technology for students and teachers. There are lots of other things, like new scoreboards or pottery equipment or JROTC uniforms, that you can quibble about if you want (color me guilty), but those small expenditures don't make a noticeable bump in the spending needed on things like repairing leaky roofs.

  • Much of the spending is targeted at 1970s-era school buildings. The 2001 and 2006 bond packages addressed deferred maintenance on the 1950s- and 1960s-era school buildings, respectively. This 2011 bond will go a long way towards catching up on the remaining deferred maintenance. Going forward, the RISD will have a long-range facilities plan that will prevent the worst effects of deferring maintenance for too long.

The RISD school board will vote in February whether or not to place the bond proposal before voters. If they decide to do so, voters will get a chance to approve the bond package in the May 14 election. Given the thought and care that's gone into the school district's planning process so far, I am confident that voters will see the benefits to the students, parents and taxpayers of the RISD to approve this investment in our community's future.

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