Comal Independent School District trustees on Thursday received updates on projected growth that led to discussions about timelines for the district’s next bond election.
Trustees approved a $274.6 million overall budget, including an operating fund of $204.4 million, $61.9 million for debt service and $10.3 million in child nutrition programs for 2019-20. It included a 4% across-the-board pay hikes for all district employees and an additional $250 for veteran teachers and professionals with at least six years experience.
Thursday’s meeting also provided glimpses into short-term and long-term infrastructure needs, and ways to address both. Steve Stanford, executive communications director, outlined options for the district’s next bond, and reminded of the short window to discuss and prioritize projects in time to schedule an election in May 2020.
“There are several things to consider — the first is addressing growth and building new schools to alleviate overcrowding,” Superintendent Andrew Kim said. “The second is tax rate implications. In 2013 we learned that is a big deal to our community and we need to be very thoughtful of that.
“This will be a needs-based bond, but the unfortunate thing is that the new legislation will set a timeline on the best way to address all of these issues.”
As a whole, trustees informally agreed to a May 2020 bond election to add two elementary schools by 2022 and a middle school by 2023, as the best option as the rising cost of acquiring land for new facilities won’t get any cheaper.
Future state funding
Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 3, which revised state property tax and school funding formulas, will immediately drop Comal ISD’s maintenance and operations tax rates by 7 cents next year – from $1.04 to $0.97 per $100 assessed property value within the district.
The rate will likely remain the same for 2020-21, but compression will further drop M&O rates beginning in 2021-22, possibly to as low as $0.87 per $100, forcing Comal and similar districts to call tax ratification elections for voter approval to recoup lost revenue.
Comal ISD will be spared from the sting of Chapter 41 state recapture payments this year, and, with the right financial planning, avoid them next year. But under the current formulas – which haven’t yet been totally deciphered by many districts – those payments could resume by 2022.
“While we now have capacity in (the interest and sinking) portion of our tax rate, which are actual capital dollars for brick and mortar projects, we have to think about additional staff needs as well,” Kim said. “We have projections, but we won’t know the actual ramifications of House Bill 3 until 2021, when a compressed tax rate goes into effect.
We just don’t know what that compressed rate will be.”
Future growth, oncoming charters
CFO David Andersen said the district late Thursday received the Texas Education Agency’s funding template, which will more accurately project the district’s long-range financial future.
“We are working on the five-year projections, and received this template, which will go beyond that timeframe very late this afternoon,” he said.
“There are some provisions (in the recent laws) that change some of the funding, but we’re working toward finding a way to schedule the timing for opening new schools, based on projected new growth and (property) values. We will have a better idea once we have those numbers.”
Based on current funding models, Andersen said the district can finish and staff Davenport High School on FM 3009 and opens in 2020, and High School No. 5, off U.S. 281 the Kinder Ranch area of Bexar County, which will open in 2021.
Trent Smith of Templeton Demographics delivered the 2019 first-quarter report on residential and business development in the district, which confirmed previous estimates of expected enrollment over the next decade.
Smith said district enrollment will exceed 24,000 this fall and add 5,855 students over the next five years. He projects the district will add 12,832 students over the next 10 years, with a total enrollment of 36,694 by 2028-29.
Highest growth areas include where the district plans new elementary schools to reduce enrollments at Garden Ridge ES and Morningside ES in the I-35 corridor, and Freiheit and Clear Spring along State Highway 46 into Guadalupe County. Also included is the newest middle school site, projected near U.S. 281 and FM 1863.
Smith also provided a glimpse into the growing numbers of charter schools statewide and along the Interstate 35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin. He said charter schools, which are free from most state regulations of public schools, are developing at rabbit-like proportions and will soon encroach into Comal ISD territory.
“They are coming, and we’re going to have to contend with it within the next 10 years,” Kim said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to compete on different levels and different (educational) platforms, and the decisions could be the difference in us becoming the Sears of today or Amazon of tomorrow.”
Erasing past as prologue
In May 2017, CISD voters overwhelmingly approved a $263.5 million bond, mostly allocated for high schools to relieve overcrowding at Smithson Valley and Canyon high schools. In 2015, voters approved a $147.4 million bond to build Danville and Pieper Ranch middle schools.
A $451 million bond proposal failed November 2013, representing the district’s first bond-election rejection since 1997. That was followed months later by district admissions it overpaid contractors for 2008 and 2005 bond projects.
Although Comal ISD passed two smaller bonds, the seven-year gap in building remains today.
The dangers of calling for a larger bond – especially one combined with a TRE that might scare off voters – was a risk trustees generally agreed on taking to address immediate needs.
Stanford cited a list of projects reviewed by a district committee, which prioritized capital improvement projects, safety/security needs and transportation and technology purchases.
He presented three possible options – all with preliminary estimates. One between $51 million and $176 million for May 2020; another totaling $245 million and combined with a TRE for May 2021; and one for $396 million in May 2020, well ahead of a possible TRE in 2021 or 2022. Combinations of the first two would delay funding for all new schools until 2023 or 2024, with the third assuring land purchases and designs for beginning construction by 2022.
“Being a conservative board and a transparent board, we will continue to do what’s in the best interests of our students and taxpayers,” said Jason York, board president. “In our 589-square mile district there are untapped areas of land – not only for schools but also developers, as I-35 is a hot corridor and the 281 corridor second.”
Several trustees also expressed a need to construct a district-wide events center, saying parents are tiring of graduations at Texas State University’s Strahan Arena. They agreed that, however, ranks second to enhancing student programs, improving existing facilities and adding new schools.
“Right now we need to get more aggressive and I believe we can,” York said. “But with every new wave of parents coming into the district, we need to be thinking about an events center and other things, and (funding) through a bond, budget, fund balance – we need to look into all of (the possibilities).”