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Fast-growth school group lies about school costs

By   /   August 18, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Alvin ISD

SCHOOL COSTS: That Rodeo Palms Junior High, pictured here, cost $18 million to build doesn’t negate the fact that Alvin ISD is now building a $42.3 million junior high. Somebody at the Fast Growth School Coalition is pretending it does.

 

The Fast Growth School Coalition is lying about Watchdog’s reporting on the most expensive junior high construction project in state history, and misrepresenting the testimony of a prominent conservative activist.

The coalition, which exists to justify massive school bonds, sent out a press release Thursday morning claiming that a state Senate committee was given bad information about the cost of a junior high in the Alvin Independent School District, south of Houston.

It wasn’t.

According to the FGSC:

“During this week’s Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee interim hearing, incorrect information regarding the costs of an Alvin ISD middle school was provided by a panelist and member, citing a blog that incorrectly placed the cost of the facility at $42 million.

“In fact, according to the Comptroller’s own data, the campus discussed during the IGR hearing, Manvel Junior High School, was built at a cost of $17.8 million, and was recognized in a 2012 Comptroller report as one of the lowest cost junior high campuses in Texas.”

That is not the junior high school at issue. It is not even the most recent junior high built in Manvel. It is a junior high built with money from three bond issues ago.

The unnamed panelist FGSC is citing is conservative activist Peggy Venable, who confronted Alvin assistant superintendent Daniel Combs over the outlandish construction costs in the district’s latest bond issue, particularly a $42.3 million junior high.

Combs was at the hearing representing FGSC’s position against disclosing the full cost of school bonds on the ballot.

“We all know that kids who need to go to school need a facility to go to school in,” Venable told the committee. “The question is how expensive is that facility. Alvin ISD has been spending more on elementaries and junior highs than anyone else in the state. As a matter of fact, the Comptroller’s office had said that one of the junior highs had set a record in Texas.”

Venable’s source for that claim was this 2015 Watchdog article, but she misunderstood a minor part of the following passage:

“The bond package calls for construction of a new junior high school for $42.3 million, a new state record, according to a Comptroller database going back to 2007 and adjusted to 2013 dollars. The next most expensive junior high is more than twice as big.”

The database, of course, contained only completed projects. The most expensive junior high on record, according to the database, was a $40.3 million in Friendswood ISD, a suburb near Alvin.

The prospective Alvin project was $2 million more expensive, but the Comptroller’s office never issued any sort of statement proclaiming Alvin as the new champion, so Venable would have been on firmer ground simply citing the Watchdog report.

But this was a minor, innocent error of attribution, not of fact. The same can’t be said for FGSC.

The new junior high – Junior High #7 – will cost $42.3 million, not including the cost of land, according to the district’s own presentation (see page 10), as well as news reports.

This is the record-setting school project identified by Watchdog.org — the “blog,” as it were, mentioned by FGSC. We wrote about it in 2015. We wrote about it this week.

This is the project identified by Venable.

This is the project referred to by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt and others involved in the discussion, who kept using the specific number of $42.3 million.

This is the project that was part of the bond that Combs came to testify about – his whole point was to lay out the extensive community involvement strategy that Alvin undertook last year by way of arguing that ballot disclosures focused on cost were superfluous and misleadingly narrow.

Nobody mentioned the junior high by name, because it doesn’t have a name, but FGSC can’t credibly claim to have gotten confused.

We notified its PR representative, Jennifer Harris of JWH Communications, of the error immediately after she sent out a press release Thursday morning, and sent her links to the source documents. She has not corrected the error.

RELATED: ‘Bonds equal taxes’ message opposed by schools

The junior high that FGSC cites, which was once called Manvel Junior High at Rodeo Palms, was renamed Rodeo Palms Junior High. It opened in 2012, long before Superintendent Buck Gilcrease took over the district.

This is the school that cost $17.8 million, according to the database. Its actual cost was $18.5 million; the Comptroller made tweaks to the figures to enable comparisons between regions with different real estate and construction costs. Manvel’s are lower than average, the district’s protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

Despite FGSC’s assertion that this was “the campus discussed during the … hearing,” nobody mentioned Rodeo Palms at all.

Manvel Junior High School, a different school that opened in fall 2015, came up during the discussion.

Bettencourt wanted to know if Venable’s testimony about a record $42.3 million project was true.

“I’m trying to validate whether the statement she made is correct,” Bettencourt said, adding that “if the Comptroller says you’ve got a record cost for a facility, it’s either true or it’s false.”

“Sen. Bettencourt, I’m not familiar with that statement ever coming from the Comptroller’s office,” Combs responded with a half-truth. “I can tell you that the most recent junior high that we constructed was Manvel Junior High and that was done at a cost of $28.2 million.”

“So therefore $42.3 million would be a rather high number,” Bettencourt responded. “So if that did occur, that probably is a record or close to a record.”

“I couldn’t speak to that,” Combs said. But of course he could. The figures came from his district. The outright lies, however, are supplied by the Fast Growth School Coalition.

Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.

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Jon Cassidy was a former Houston-based reporter for Watchdog.org.