Tuesday, December 1, 2015

2016 Bond: Listen Up, RISD

The Richardson school district (RISD) is conducting a "listening tour" to get community feedback on a proposed 2016 bond package. Meetings are being held this week at each of the four high schools. The first was Monday night at JJ Pearce High School. Nothing is finalized yet (hence the listening tour), but here are the wish list numbers and how much debt RISD can carry without a tax rate increase.

Wish List:
  • Maintenance: $216 million
  • Capacity expansion: $59 million
  • Enrichment options:
    • Multipurpose facilities: $82 million
    • Career and Technical Education, JROTC: $10 million
    • Library transformation: $23 million
    • Technology enrichment: $23 million
  • Total: $417 million

Bond capacity
  • No tax rate increase: $235 million
  • Raise tax rate by 10 cents: $460 million

First, I'll give my impressions of the feedback of the JJ Pearce community. Then I'll discuss the elephant in the room.

There were about 150 members of the JJ Pearce community in attendance. Generally, the audience was receptive to the bond proposal. There were no cries of being overtaxed, no charges of wasted money, no criticisms of declining test scores (well, maybe one, sort of).

The biggest enrichment item, at $82 million, was for four multipurpose facilities (one at each high school for indoor practice by athletics, band, etc.). Surprisingly, to me, it invoked no opposition to its cost, only concerns about the impact on property values for nearby homeowners. Well, that's not exactly true. One man said we ought to pay our coaches higher salaries before building new facilities, but I think he meant do both.

The bond proposal calls for expanding capacity at Lake Highlands HS and Richardson HS to handle increased enrollment. One person asked if Pearce HS didn't need more space, too. The answer was that Pearce (and Berkner) can add capacity by repurposing existing space. LHHS and RHS have less opportunity to do that. Another person (from the Berkner area) asked why we're not building more schools instead of adding on to existing schools. The answer is that while people are generally in favor of building new schools, hardly anyone is in favor of adjusting school boundaries in a way that causes their children to go to a different school. So RISD expands schools as needed, creates magnet schools to relieve overcrowding, and uses other options before building a new school. RISD has built new schools as well in the past. In particular, RISD sees no need on the horizon to build a fifth traditional high school.

One person (the same Berkner area person as before) asked what happens to the increased tax revenues resulting from increasing property values. It was explained that RISD is considered a property rich school district. Through a process called recapture, any tax revenue above a certain level must be returned to the state to support property poor districts. There's a one year lag in the calculation of the recapture rates, so any increased tax collections will last only one year. RISD puts that money into the capital projects fund, not the operational fund.

One person endorsed the library transformation plan. Another person, in favor, asked about the plan for Career and Technical Education plan. A school nurse made a pitch for enhancements to the medical facilities in the schools.

No one mentioned the elephant in the room. RISD's bond capacity, without a tax rate increase, is $235 million. Just the maintenance and needed capacity expansion construction alone total $275 million. Without a tax rate increase, there's no room for *any* of the enrichment options that most of the meeting time was spent on. The question was never asked how many people might support a tax rate increase. The RISD might have to package the bond items in a way that lets voters themselves decide whether they want to support an increased tax rate and for what. For example, put the $82 million multipurpose facilities in a separate ballot item carrying a stipulation that it comes with, say, a four cent rate increase. Perhaps the other enrichment options could be broken out similarly. Voters can then decide what they want to pay for.

That still requires the administrators and the school board to whittle down the maintenance and construction bond wish list to something manageable without a tax rate increase. You don't want to jeopardize passage of that part of the bond package over opposition to a tax rate increase for enrichment items. If they can do that, the voters of the RISD just might surprise me by passing not only the bare necessities (with no tax rate increase), but some of the enrichment options (that carry a tax rate increase) as well.