‘Throwing Band-Aids.’ North Texas schools seek voter support to tackle safety, teacher pay | #schoolsaftey

School safety, teacher pay and campus renovations are on the ballot for some North Texas districts this November.

District officials want voters to approve school bond packages to pay for building improvements or to adopt increased tax rates that will help bolster salaries and academic programs.

“We don’t have enough funding to take care of all the things that we’re supposed to take care of,” Cedar Hill ISD Superintendent Gerald Hudson said. “We’re throwing Band-Aids on compound fractures.”

Schools across Texas are contending with rising costs, enrollment declines, aging infrastructure, learning loss caused by the pandemic and other challenges impacting budgets, education leaders say.

However, efforts to direct more money for public schools are tied up in Gov. Greg Abbott’s continued push for voucherlike programs, which would allow state dollars to funnel to private schools. Abbott has said he’d expand a special session agenda to include public school funding only after a plan is approved for education savings accounts.

“We’re being held hostage by a voucher program,” Forney ISD Superintendent Justin Terry said. “That’s not right for our kids. It’s not right for our teachers. It’s not rough for our community.”

The base amount of money the Legislature allocates per student hasn’t increased since 2019, so district leaders say they need voter support to address multiple needs.

Meanwhile, they are bringing forward these requests as homeowners could see overall taxes drop. Also on the Nov. 7 ballot is a statewide measure that would allow entities to increase homestead exemptions from $40,000 to $100,000. Districts are expected to receive state funding to offset dips in property tax revenue as a result.

School safety

A new law requires an armed person at every Texas campus as part of efforts to keep students safe.

That mandate is in response to last year’s Uvalde massacre, in which 19 children and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary.

Districts are scrambling to comply with the requirement as they face staffing and financial challenges.

Security “rose straight to the top” among Duncanville ISD’s priorities, said Karin Holacka, chief of special projects.

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Texas public schools get roughly $10 per student for safety needs. But administrators across the state say it’s not enough to implement the new law and address other security upgrades.

Duncanville wants to add cameras, fencing, fire sprinkler systems and door enhancements, such as locks and key card access, across its campuses.

The safety upgrades are part of Duncanville’s $170 million bond package that also includes creating an early childhood center, renovating a high school, expanding career and technical education programs and replacing more than 40 aging buses.

If voters support the Duncanville bond package, the district’s total tax rate would be about $1.13 per $100 of assessed property value. That rate would be lower than the current one because of the state’s compression of the maintenance and operations tax rate.

Meanwhile, Cedar Hill expects to receive about $225,000 from the state to help with school safety. However, the district still needs at least an additional $623,000 to hire nine additional officers to meet the armed staff requirement across its schools, according to district officials.

“It is frustrating,” said Hudson, the Cedar Hill schools leader. “We call a lot of these things ‘unfunded mandates’ or ‘poorly funded mandates.’”

Cedar Hill’s proposed voter approved tax rate election could generate about $6.8 million more annually for the district, which would bolster safety and other priorities. The district’s proposed tax rate would be about $1.13 per $100 of assessed property value.

Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD’s more than $997 million bond proposal and Forney ISD’s tax rate election also include funding for safety and security measures, along with other priorities. Forney’s tax rate will drop by 6.5 cents to about $1.29 per $100 of assessed property value even if the voters pass the measure.

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Teacher pay

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Pay increases help keep teachers in classrooms, Lancaster ISD spokesperson Kimberly Simpson said.

However, the district wants to ensure it can maintain such raises over years.

“Our goal is not to give a raise and have to take it back,” Simpson said.

Through its proposed tax rate election, Lancaster would generate more than $1.5 million annually that would allow the district to offer competitive salaries and give raises to current employees, officials said.

Lancaster ISD’s current tax rate sits at $1.19 per $100 of assessed property value. If approved by voters, the new tax rate would be $1.23.

Cedar Hill’s Hudson fears his schools “will continue to struggle attracting and retaining the best educators” if that district’s tax rate election fails, he said.

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More than half of Cedar Hill teachers leave its schools within two years, according to district data. The leading reason they cite is pay.

District officials plan to use more than $2.2 million on stipends and raises if voters approve the effort. All teachers, librarians and nurses would get a $2,500 stipend. Staff, including bus drivers, custodians and paraprofessionals, would get a $1,000 stipend.

Texans historically have supported school bond proposals with about 70% to 80% of them receiving voter approval each year, Texas Association of School Boards spokesperson Dax González said.

However, after the pandemic, approval numbers dipped. In November 2021, only 46% of bond proposals passed, according to the school board group. Economic uncertainty from the pandemic and “ballot language intended to decrease bond passage” could have played a role, González said.

He noted that support is creeping back up. In May’s local elections, the passage rate jumped up to about 74%, he added.

Still, many fiscal conservative groups have amped up efforts to scrutinize districts’ spending requests in recent years. In Cedar Hill, for example, the school district’s efforts to pass a tax rate election in 2018 and again in 2022 failed.

A video posted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, noted that “Texas taxpayers are reaching a breaking point, and it’s time to restore fiscal sanity to our local governments.”

A mix of needs

In Lewisville, school officials are asking voters to pass both a tax rate election that would generate $37.5 million and a $1.23 billion bond package.

Along with boosting salaries and paying for maintenance and renovations, the district would use funds to sustain various programs, such as those in science, technology, engineering and math, world languages, fine arts and leadership.

“The cost per-student allowed by the state simply does not provide for major capital expenses,” district spokesperson Samantha FitzPatrick wrote in an email.

Even if all seven bond propositions are approved, Lewisville ISD’s new total tax rate would be $1.13, or 10.6 cents lower than last year’s, according to the district. Officials have credited that drop, in part, to the district’s debt management policies.

Meanwhile in the fast growing Prosper ISD, the Collin County district is seeking voter support for a bond package totaling more than $2.8 billion — one of the state’s highest asks for schools in history. The bulk of the money, about 87%, would be used to build 11 new schools, said Rachel Trotter, Prosper’s spokesperson.

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If approved, officials plan to update, expand and build schools; strengthen safety and security across campuses; and upgrade technology in classrooms.

About $125 million would be allocated for a new performance arts center and more than $102 million to expand the district’s athletic facilities, including what could potentially be the state’s most expensive high school football stadium. The latter of which has received criticism for potentially “eating into” tax cuts passed by the Legislature recently.

But school officials note that a passage of Prosper’s bond package would not increase the district’s current tax rate, which is currently set at about $1.26 per $100 of assessed property value.

Still, a provision state lawmakers added in 2019 could complicate efforts for districts.

Any proposition in bond elections must include the language “THIS IS A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE” — even if districts aren’t asking to change tax rates.

“That’s the biggest obstacle to help people understand,” Prosper’s Trotter said. “Even though the ballot says this is a property tax increase, that’s actually not for us.”

Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school leaders brought forward a bond proposition totaling at more than $659 million for security, facility maintenance and technology updates, a natatorium and athletic improvements at one of its high schools.

If voters approve all four propositions, EMS ISD homeowners can expect an increase of one tenth of a penny in the local tax rate beginning in tax year 2024, according to the district’s website. The total school bond package is expected to cost the average homeowner less than $3 annually, officials estimate.

Early voting in the November election runs from now through Nov. 3. The deadline to vote by mail is Oct. 27. Election day is on Nov. 7.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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