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Poor, indebted school district mulls fancy new construction

By   /   February 10, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Courtesy Hays CISD

GETTING SCHOOLED: The new high school in Hays CISD would be one of the most expensive in state history, at $122 million.

For years now, Texas school districts have followed a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses approach to new construction, where one district after another takes on more debt than it can afford to have all the amenities its neighbors have.

In Hill Country, where districts such as Leander, Liberty Hill and Pflugerville have maxed out their taxing capacity with extravagant school bonds, the trend is nearly as pronounced as it is in the Dallas-Forth Worth region, the state’s clear leader in megabonds and megastadiums.

Now Hays Consolidated Independent School District, situated just south of Austin and north of San Marcos, is about to make a giant leap up the rankings of least fiscally responsible school districts in the region, with three of the most expensive schools in state history.

Unlike most of the school districts that cite dubious growth projections to justify their need for new buildings, Hays CISD really is growing fast. It’s gone from 6,500 students in the district 12 years ago to nearly 20,000 this year, and expects to keep growing by 4 percent a year for the foreseeable future.

So the need for new schools is real. But the district is proposing a $122 million high school and two $34 million elementary schools, which would be among the most expensive on record.

In 2014, the state comptroller’s office published a database of all school construction costs from 2007 to 2013, which has since been removed, apparently, from the office’s website, although it lives on here.

That survey found just one elementary school more expensive than either of Hays’s planned elementary schools. But at $36 million for 248,000 square feet, it was far more economical than the $34 million Hays will pay for each 115,000 square feet school.

Even after subtracting $2.3 million for furniture and equipment, which are in the school’s figure but not in the comptroller’s figures, the schools would still be candidates for the most expensive elementary schools ever built in Texas, exceeding even the headline-generating costs at Alvin ISD.

Likewise, the planned $122 million high school is the second most expensive on record, trailing just a $141.5 million high school in Conroe.

Local bookkeeper Jennifer Price, who has been trying to call attention to the costs, researched recent bond issues, finding that Hays is on track to exceed all others in cost.

The nearby Pflugerville “high school bond had a $104M budget and included a 3,000 person football stadium, 700-person baseball facility and 700-person softball facility and serves an estimated 24,000-plus students in the district,” she writes. “Our Hays CISD proposed $122M high school does not include a football stadium or 700 person baseball and softball facilities and serves a somewhat smaller district serving 19,235 students.”

The comparison could be a little closer after the school board decided Monday to stick a $3.6 million baseball/softball complex into the bond package, after finding that the 15 other ballfields in the area were insufficient.

Compounding the trouble, while it is growing, Hays CISD is not a rich district that can easily afford extravagances.

Price points out that average home values in the area are considerably lower than the surrounding towns, and state data backs her up.

Hays CISD is far below the statewide average in tax base-to-student measurements.

In the metric of assessed property value per student, Hays CISD’s 2015 figure of $273,317 is just 37 percent of the statewide average of $736,358.

The district’s 79,000 residents already owe a backbreaking $484 million in principal and interest on school bonds.

As with most bond campaigns, the school district selected community members to form a committee to plan the bond, but all the numbers and plans were set beforehand by district officials and contractors. The committee was never even presented with any cheaper alternatives for school construction.

Most of the items included in the bond were named as priorities by less than 10 percent of the committee members.

Matt Ocker, a local conservative, pleaded with the district to get its prices down to $90-95 million for a high school and $20-22 million for the elementary schools, but it was in vain.

“I’m new to the central Texas region, but I’m here to tell you, the way we build government buildings up here, folks, is not the way everyone does it,” Ocker told one meeting. “We don’t need these cathedrals to the gods. We don’t need to worship our local government.”

At a public meeting at Lehman High School, Ocker questioned extravagances such as 50-foot vaulted ceilings.

“I’ve got to wonder sometimes if somebody’s got a buddy that’s in the glass business, if somebody’s got a buddy that’s in the stone business, just walking up to Lehman, and seeing the 3-foot wrapped stone columns that hold up a cover that keeps rain off children,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with a 4-inch piece of pipe.”

The school board did decide Feb. 6 to remove a $22.5 million administration building from the package, and to split the bond into two packages: one for the three new schools, and the other for miscellaneous items such as an $8.5 million band room.

The school board will meet Monday at 5:30 p.m. to order that the bond packages be put on the ballot in May.

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

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