The powers-that-be at HISD will be at the ballot boxes with their hands out again in November
to the tune of $1.89 billion. You read that correctly; HISD is looking for a new cash infusion of nearly two billion (with a “b”) dollars! If the money grab weren’t so offensive (and it weren’t our money) we might beimpressed by the shear, unmitigated audacity of the largest single bond issue in Texas public school history. Sadly though, it is taxpayer dollars. Sadder yet is the way that HISD mismanaged the last bond issue which narrowly passed in 2007 for $805 million. Dubious past performance, academic performance issues and an all-or-nothingoverreach should all raise red flags and sound alarm bells for conservative voters in the city of Houston.
HISD’s $1.89 billion bond plan is being sold as an initiative to rebuild or renovate 38 of the city’s oldest schools, including 28 high schools, and improve safety and technology at campuses city-wide. If passed, the bond issue will result in a tax increase of 4.85-cents per $100 of valuation which would add approximately $75 per year, after homestead exemption, to the tax bill of homeowners with a home valued around $200,000.
Report Card: The 2007 Bond Issue
In 2007, HISD passed an $805 million bond issue on slim margins. Their promise then was to complete the third and final phase of a capital improvement plan with $805 million in funds following the previous 1998 and 2002 bond elections. And what is the grade on HISD’s stewardship of that $805 million? Well, as early as 2010, signs of trouble started appearing about HISD’s use of the funds, including a report that the project was $37 million over budget, due in part to costs that HISD failed to include in its budget calculations. Also during that time, according to an article in the Houston Chronicle (“HISD bond program is $37 million over budget”, August 12, 2010), an audit of the program by the Council of the Great City Schools revealed a laundry list of performance-based failures leading to the conclusion that HISD, “has insufficient staff training, lacks financial transparency, and has ‘no apparent sense of urgency.’” Now, five years after the last bond issue was passed, HISD is back with hands outstretched despite the fact that 40% of the 2007 Phase III projects remain uncompleted and hundreds of millions of project dollars remain unspent. These issues raise some obvious questions. For example, if Phase III was the final phase then why does HISD now need more money? And why should we believe the funding is desperately needed considering that the 2007 projects haven’t been completed? Why the urgency? We will take a look at that shortly, but first let’s first consider HISD’s performance and the local educational landscape outside of their apparent inability to manage the funds with which they’ve already been entrusted.
Unlike Houston Community College’s need for funding (see article pg X) necessitated by increasing enrollment and performance excellence, HISD’s request—amid poor performance and a dismal education landscape—feels more like an investment in a ship that is sinking badly with no evidence that more money will save it. Consider the current reality: dropout rates are high and rising, the student population is declining and, of those who do graduate the system, 60% will require remedial education to enter secondary institutions. The system is failing…badly; and it is a failure that cannot be fixed with a $2 billion Band-Aid of bricks and mortar and fresh coats of paint.
The Conservative Alternative
Conservatives are not without compassion and do not simply offer knee-jerk opposition to education funding. But the funding has to make sense and the entities who seek our dollars must have a track record of successful performance. In the case of HISD’s request, neither is true. It is a case that conservatives argued to HISD prior to their budget- busting request. An approach that may have set better with conservatives would have been to rectify mistakes identified following the 2007 bond issue, complete the approximately 40% of projects still left undone and provide a full and transparent accounting of that project before returning to ask for more and then, when they did return for more access to the public coffers, stair-step their request with a smaller amount, instead of shooting for the moon.
So why not a more reasonable, stair-stepped strategy? There are several theories on this, but the one that prevails is one of political strategy. Since bond issues typically pass or fail along ideological lines, HISD, it has been suggested, went for broke hoping for a large Democratic Party turnout and significant enough Obama coattails to provide a victory. With that hope in mind, this would be their best shot for victory for years and they might as well go for it all. It is certainly a plausible strategy, though one that, if accurate, risks alienating conservatives who take issue with the sheer magnitude of the request. As former Harris County Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt put it, “This is a Titanic bond, and you hope it doesn’t hit an iceberg.”
HISD’s performance on its last bond issue has been nothing less than deplorable—costs were underestimated, schools that were supposed to be renovated have instead been shuttered, 40% of projects have not been completed and hundreds of millions of dollars sit on the sidelines of our local economy. All while HISD offers no explanations for these failures or any solutions to escalating dropout rates, declining enrollments and poor academic results. As conservatives, we demand results and accountability for our investments. Since HISD has provided neither, voters should reject this unprecedented bond issue and send HISD back to repeat “Bond Issues 101” so that they can learn the lessons of the last bond issue before being allowed to graduate to the next level.
Marc Cowart is the Associate Editor of the Texas Conservative review and a consultant at The Cowart Group, which offers consulting services in the areas of campaign management, communications and marketing for political and business clients.
Marc has over two decades of experience in the political arena in both campaigns and in political organizations where he has filled a wide range of leadership roles including, campaign manager, general consultant, executive director, finance director and communications director.
Marc can be reached by phone at 832-713-6272 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org