ECISD survey: Most nix new taxes

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Dec. 5—Results from a recent survey on Ector County ISD's proposed bond election yielded grim results.

Conducted by Baselice & Associates Nov. 2-14, the poll of 1,000 Ector County voters shows 39% are for and 54% are against a school bond of $600 million.

An amount has not been set and the Bond Planning Committee is still working out a recommendation to bring to the Ector County ISD Board of Trustees.

Bond Planning Committee co-chair Lorraine Perryman said they will meet Monday and Tuesday to take a deep dive into the survey data and any information the group wants to know more about.

Perryman said the committee was very disappointed in the survey results.

"There's a lot to digest there and it's very concerning," she said.

There are lots of people that know that there are real needs, but they don't want their taxes raised to pay for it, Perryman said.

"You can't have your cake and eat it, too."

"Kids are bursting at the seams. We can't just build to accommodate what we have; we have to accommodate future growth as well. That's the only way in Texas that you pay for that is bond elections. That money does not come from the state ... But you have people that always, unfortunately, have that anti-tax (sentiment) even though they recognize that we have (growth) and will have student growth in the future," Perryman said.

Baselice spoke with 400 voters and 600 voters filled out an online survey. The survey showed people need more information, and while they recognize the needs of the district, they don't want their taxes to increase. They also don't have a good perception of the district's academic performance and operations.

"The poll took on the phone 15 or 20 minutes, so it was a lengthy phone conversation, because there were over 30 questions that were asked and some of the questions ...required quite a bit of explanation for the voter," Superintendent Scott Muri said.

Muri said he appreciates residents for participating.

"The high school takeaway was (that) our community overwhelmingly supports the creation of a new high school in Ector County. That was very clear through the polling information. They do not want large high schools and that was very evident. The community understands the need for repairs, upkeep and maintenance of our schools; that was very clear. The community recognizes the value of technology in education. That was very clear as well. And that's technology infrastructure, as well as tools for kids. The community supports the fine and performing arts and believes that investments in those areas are wise as we develop our students. The community supported a Career and Technical Education Center. They, again, understand the need that we have within our community to support kids and their CTE pathways," Muri said.

"The community didn't support continued investments in athletics, and so Ratliff Stadium, it was really clear that investing dollars in that complex was not supported within our community. Some of the other athletic upgrades to campuses were not supported in our community," Muri said.

"And so, again, we will have to listen to that. Our voters, or at least those that were polled, challenge our system to be better," Muri added.

He said some people were unclear as to what was done with proceeds from the $129 million bond from 2012 and also what was accomplished with the tax ratification election. Funds from the 2012 bond built three new elementary schools, added on to Permian and Odessa high schools and funded a performing arts center for OHS, among other things.

The tax ratification election gave teachers salary raises, enabled the district to purchase more buses and make campuses more secure, as examples.

"... We have to do a better job of communicating the work that we've completed that's been a part of prior bond packages, as well as the TRE, to our community. And I understand that. ... I live in that world and so we talk about it daily," he said.

But the public is not part of those daily conversations.

"The TRE was four years ago and I can understand why they may not know what was done. And so we have to do a better job of communicating our successes with our community. That was really clear. We also have to, I think, do a better job as a system of educating our community in the facility needs of our system. The state of Texas does not provide funding for facilities ... In Texas, we depend upon the local community to build schools, to replace schools, to maintain schools, and the way you get that local money is through a bond referendum," Muri said.

There has also been discontent with the additions to Permian and Odessa High schools from the previous bond where fewer classrooms than expected were added.

"I think, again, we have to do a better job as a system of educating our community in the needs of our organization and then how we've used the bond dollars in the past. And also, it was clear, helping people understand the difference between a bond and ... The dollars that you get from a TRE go into your general fund and those dollars can be used to increase teacher salaries, and really thanks to our community, the passage of a TRE in 2017 that is how we have been able to increase teacher salaries. But a bond referendum does not go into your general fund ... Those dollars are only used to build new facilities, or to renovate facilities, or to invest in the infrastructure of the school system ...," Muri said.

The proceeds can also be used for repairs.

"... But because our facilities are so old now the dollar amount for repairs right now is $175 million just over the next five years. ... The average age of a school in ECISD is 61 years old. When you begin to get a little older, kind of like our bodies, as we age we need a little bit more medical care and it costs more money. ... Thirty-one of our schools are over 60 years of age, so we have a lot of schools that need significant attention, either to repair them or replace them, depending upon how severe their condition is. And our public doesn't seem to understand that. We take the blame for that. We must do a better job of educating our public in that area," Muri said.

He added that nobody wants their taxes increased.

"But from a school district perspective, I think we have to think about our children. This is an opportunity to invest in the education of our children. If I think about it just as a tax increase ... that gives, even for me, a bad taste in my mouth. But an investment in your school district is an investment in the children of our community. And we have 32,000 of them that will eventually become the next superintendent, the next reporter, the next teacher, etc.," Muri said.

While it would be a tax increase, it is an investment in students and the community to help make students competitive.

"If we ... don't want that, then our kids are going to struggle to be competitive in this global economy," Muri said.

Muri said the district has different fundraising opportunities than colleges and universities and it cannot use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief or American Rescue Plan funds for buildings. The city and county have received ARP funds and the school district has requested some of that money to provide affordable, high-speed broadband to everyone in Ector County that wants it.

It can use some ESSER funds if it wanted to install new HVAC systems in schools, but it has to be used for COVID related purposes. Primarily, the ESSER funds are for academic recovery, Muri said.

The district can apply for and be awarded grants, but in smaller amounts.

For example, the FMH Foundation recently awarded ECISD $550,000 to go toward fine and performing arts.

Until a bond recommendation goes to the school board, there is no political action committee. The PAC will make a case to the community for a bond.

The district has an information function, but they can only deal in facts. They can't lobby one way or the other, Perryman said.

"There are big decisions to be made, with some negative attitude in the community should this go forward. That's one of the reasons we're doing these two deep dive meetings so that lots of these questions and extra data can be gotten to answer those questions. Then the district has to deal with the image that they have in the community. The school board and the school district has to deal with that. That is not what a political action committee does to pass a bond election. Our job is not to fix people's negative impressions of the school district, but it is important that the school district knows what community attitudes were in the survey and that they respond to those and address the needs that the community has. That's not the bond committee's job to do that. The district does need to do that," Perryman said.

She said she was surprised by some survey results and not surprised by others.

Perryman added that there is a lot of discontent in the world right now and in the community.

"... I think that we see that mirrored when we ask people about local issues. There is a lot of frustration, and I'm not saying this just about this survey, (I'm) saying in the general community. People can recognize problems, but I think we live in a world that's pretty overwhelming right now. We think we're getting out of this pandemic and then a new variant emerges and we're back in. So we're still in a pandemic and everybody wants that to be over for a million reasons — mostly the preservation of human life. But it also has a huge impact on all of our communities in many ways. Our kids, their future, the future of the community, the economy ...," Perryman said.

People are also tiring of the pandemic. Issues such as increased inflation and supply chain bottlenecks have come up because of COVID.

"... We've got to get out from under that. All of those issues are real; the results of the pandemic on our personal lives, on our pocketbooks, and I think people are very concerned, rightfully so. ... It's logical to be concerned about your family, your finances. But they also recognize that the school district is educating their children and the workforce of the future, so we have to address those needs as well," Perryman said. "They have to do a good job and we as a community have to provide the district the facilities to do that job in."

She acknowledged that things are tough right now and it's a tough time to sell a bond. But they can't just stall out.

"We have to meet the needs of today and the future," she said. "Many of our elementary schools are over capacity. Our middle schools are crowded and some are beyond their lifecycle and then it's just a money pit. They need to be replaced. It's the same as you deal with in your own personal residence. You've got to take care of it and that's where we are. Sometimes you need to replace it. So there are those issues at the middle school; overcrowding at every level and the oil industry is back," Perryman said.

"The price of oil is up and more people are moving into our community. Surprisingly, not that many left when the economy tanked. We've got to address those needs, and then the Nacero plant is going to be building and that will bring thousands of people and their families. Those kids have to go to school, so we have to deal with what it is today and what it will be tomorrow."

"We as a community need to take a deep breath and try to do right by our kids within the constraints that we all feel on our pocketbooks and the personal impact of the pandemic, so there's a lot going on," Perryman added.

She said she has been very pleased with the bond committee, which is made up of a cross-section of community members including ECISD teachers and principals.

"They are very conscientious and they are taking all of these issues into account. They are not looking at any of this in a cavalier way. They are recognizing the constraints in the community and the problems that people in the community face because of all these issues that are not of Odessa's making. But we have to make Odessa strong for the future as well. It's a balancing act and it's up to the community to decide what they want," Perryman said.

The proposal that will come from the committee has gone through a very deliberative process, she said. The committee has looked at every issue that they can think of and have debated and prayed about what is the best thing for Odessa.

"The final decisions are not made yet, so there is still work ahead and we have these two deep dive meetings to delve into these hard questions and then we have one more bond meeting on the (December) 16th. Out of that, a proposal will be derived to go to the school board.

"Then they're the ones that have to make that decision. It's not a perfect environment to do this in, but we can't just be frozen as a community because we're facing a lot of challenges," Perryman added.

Asked about the perception that a lot of people on the committee are comfortable and may be out of touch, Perryman said the committee is very cognizant of that and there are a lot of people on it who are not wealthy.

There are parents of children from pretty much every school in Ector County "so they're living it every day."

"There are teachers on that committee. There are lots of people that are not immune to the hardships that people are facing right now. So I think there is a pretty good representation. Now there are those that are not as impacted, but there certainly are people that are struggling economically on the committee as well. The district invited people from all walks of life, from all parts of town because it's not going to work otherwise," she said.

She noted that she has not noticed that out of touch attitude on the committee because even the ones that are doing well do work in the community like volunteering at the West Texas Food Bank.

"So I think there are people that may appear to be fine, but that doesn't mean they don't have a heart and they don't see what's going on out there. I think the people are very heartfelt and have real honest concern for all of our children. I know I do."

Muri said the bond planning committee will have its final meeting Dec. 16. "And at that point, they'll make a decision whether to take a recommendation to the school board. That recommendation will come in January and then the school board will spend about five weeks determining whether or not to call an election. Their deadline to call the election is the middle of February and then we would target May of 2022 for an election," Muri said.

He added that it's totally up to the board of trustees whether to move forward with an election.

"Again, the time you have an election, May and November, those are the two times and so the board could call an election for any of those two election periods. But it will be up to them to decide the when, and also ... what's in it. So the bond committee will give a recommendation to the board, and the board may tweak that recommendation, based upon other information that the board may have. But ultimately, the board makes the final decision as to what the items in a bond referendum would be, how much the bond referendum would be, etc. So the board would make that decision by the middle of February," he added.

If an election is called, that's when you begin the process of educating the community.

"And so when you heard me say earlier that we have to do a better job of educating and informing our community, that's when that will take place in that window between February and May the election, because we want voters to be informed," Muri said.

He said the survey helped the district know what the public wants.

"And the public wants a new high school. The public wants a CTE facility; the public wants investments in fine and performing arts; the public wants investments in technology. So those are things that through the survey, the public told us, and we need to pay attention to those things. Because, again, our parents and other community members see value in those items. And obviously, we would need to see those in a bond. The public also sees that we're growing and we have to take care of the growth of our school system. We have schools, and our parents can tell you this, that are bursting at the seams. When you walk through our two ... large, comprehensive high schools, there's not a lot of elbow room. We have elementary and middle schools that are just like that," Muri said.

"At Buice Elementary, if they don't do something to relieve the crowding at that school, they will have more kids being educated outside the school building than inside the school building. ... We would eat up all of their playgrounds with portable classrooms. And we can't do that. No one wants that. But our community recognizes that we're growing and that was very clear in the survey that the community supports schools that will address the growth of students in our school system," Muri said.

The public also wants better academic performance from the district.

"... I think we owe that to our community and to our children. And that's why it's important to invest in and that's what a bond referendum is, it is an investment in our children. And if our community wants our children to do better, then we must invest in their education," Muri said.

Muri said he was not surprised that people didn't want any new taxes.

"... I've been around in education for a long time and have been a part of multiple bonds. I don't think anybody wants a new tax. ... But I think we have to see this as an investment in children. That's what it is. We have 32,000 children in our community that deserve investment. And how much do we value our children, and so a bond opportunity from a school system perspective demonstrates to our children how much we value their education," he said.

"And yes that means new taxes, but I value education. I've been here two years and I want every single child that lives here to have the very best academic experience that we can provide to them. I think our kids deserve that, so it excites me to be able to bring this opportunity to our community and let our community show and demonstrate to our kids that you deserve it ...," Muri added.

The survey polled people about a $500, $600 and $700 million bond. "So we got that feedback. And then the committee itself has been looking at dollars for each of the items. For instance, as we looked at our facility needs, that is the maintenance and repair of our aging facilities, there was a dollar amount of $818 million ... simply to repair and maintain our existing facilities. And so that's a dollar amount the committee has seen. We've seen dollar amounts to build a new high school, $150 million. To build a new middle school, $75 million; to build a new elementary school, $35 million," Muri said.

A new CTE facility would be $70 million.

"We've seen these dollar amounts, whether it's building new to handle growth, or to replace an aging facility. The committee has looked at all of these dollars, so they know the significant amount of money that it costs to educate children. And it's huge; it's huge," he said.

Part of the reason costs are so high is because ECISD's facilities are aging. It costs a significant amount of money to replace plumbing, electrical and HVAC and fix walls that are no longer sturdy.

If a bond were to pass in May 2022, it would be May of 2023 before the first shovel would go into the ground for any project.

"That's because of the process we have to go through. We have to do a selection process for architects; a selection process for engineers; a selection process for contractors to do all of this work. Those processes take months of bidding and interviewing folks. Then once they're hired, the architects and engineers have to develop all the plans, and then the public, our board, have to approve the plans," Muri said.

If a new high school was started, it would take at least one and a half to two years of construction before it would open so that would be summer 2025.

Asked about whether elementaries that are less crowded can be used, he said there are very few.

"And so we're actually looking at that right now. But we don't have enough space. We know how many seats we have in Ector County in all of our schools and even if we maxed out every single school, we don't have enough seats to handle all the kids that we currently serve without being overcrowded," Muri said.

"... Through our magnet and choice opportunities, I'm exploring some ways to more effectively leverage a few of our elementaries that have space. We don't have any middle schools or high schools that have space. We're maxed out at the secondary level, but we do have a few elementaries with space and so we plan on the leveraging that space and we also need new facilities; so it's both to handle our growth," he added.

The district can only build to the amount voters will support.

"We're really setting our community up for some dire situations in the future, because our buildings are aging so quickly, we have to do something now. We have to. The future superintendents and future boards are really dependent upon us, our system and our community, to act now to make sure that they're able to do what they need to do in the future," Muri said.

In Spring Branch, where Muri came from, schools were on a cycle of replacement every 50 years.

"So they made a conscious decision as a community when a school hits 50 it's going to be on a bond cycle for replacement. So that's what they do in that community every 10 years they have a bond referendum and they replace every school that ages over 50 and that it is how they maintain," he said.

From a growth perspective, Muri said, Spring Branch is landlocked so there is no growth. They have about 35,000 students "so they don't grow, but they replace. And here, we need both. We're growing and we need replacement."

"... Our kids deserve to have modern facilities in which to be educated. They need to have modern facilities in order to be competitive with other students," he said. "We have neighbors in (Hobbs) New Mexico that are finishing up a brand new career and technical education center. It's a multimillion dollar state-of-the-art facility, so a beautiful facility with equipment and tools that are state of the art. That's less than 100 miles away and those kids are going to have experiences academically that our children do not have today. And yet they're going to be competing for the same jobs in the same area because they're within 100 miles, and who's going to be better equipped? Those kids that have that modern equipment and those modern tools, they're going to be using tools that you would find in the workplace. And our kids deserve that very same opportunity."

Muri said multiple small districts came together to build the facility.

Asked if there had been any conversations about Odessa and Midland combining resources, he said there had been nothing formal.

"But I think we've had conversations with Odessa College about our career and technical education. Odessa College educates beyond the borders of Ector County and that's really where an opportunity to collaborate with our community college would create opportunities for kids that lived in Midland and other places, certainly; probably more adults that lived in other places to gain some academic experiences," he said.

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