Fort Worth has been consistently ranked as one of the fastest growing large cities in the country. The cost of living, climate, amenities and culture make our city a wonderful place to live.
However, one area that is consistently raised as a concern for economic growth is the perception of the public school system. Fort Worth is fortunate to have many hard-working, wonderful teachers and principals. Fort Worth Independent School District Superintendent Kent Scribner and his team are making good strides in reducing the number of underperforming schools, improving overall academic rankings and student success.
But there is still much work to be done.
In August, the Fort Worth ISD (FWISD) school board approved two bond proposals that will help the school district achieve its three primary goals focused on:
• Early literacy,
• Middle years math,
• College and career readiness.
While FWISD is already implementing several large instructional initiatives to help achieve these goals, including the literacy initiative 100×25, approval of the bond proposal by the voters on Nov. 7 will be essential to achieving the district’s third goal of ensuring that all students graduate college- and career-ready.
According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, less than 20 percent of FWISD’s approximately 4,000 annual high school graduates have a four-year degree within six years of high school graduation. While not every student is interested in obtaining a college degree, data also show that relatively very few FWISD graduates complete two-year degrees and, as a consequence, have barriers for higher-paying employment opportunities.
Recognizing the need to focus more attention and resources to ensure that students are college- and career-ready, the majority of the bond proceeds will be allocated to upgrade neighborhood high schools. On Nov. 7, Fort Worth voters will determine whether FWISD students will have the resources, tools and opportunities they need to be prepared for success in life and to help grow and strengthen the economic success of our community.
The 2017 bond election is composed of two propositions. Proposition B is $750 million in new bonds to be issued over a six-year period. These funds will be used partially to address overcrowding at specific schools, such as Tanglewood Elementary and Waverly Park Elementary. However the majority of the funds would be used to make critical improvements and repairs to the high schools, provide classroom upgrades to bring the schools up to the model for 21st century learning, and provide enhancements for career and technical training programs such as robotics labs, aviation and automotive shops and engineering labs.
Proposition A, the “penny swap,” is a change in the allocation of tax dollars under the current tax rate. Instead of $0.31 of the $1.35 total property tax going to debt service, only $0.29 would go to debt service with the additional funds going to operations. This reallocation would transfer about $7 million in property tax revenue from debt service to operations and would also result in an additional $16 million in state funding as a result of the higher operations budget. This additional $23 million per year could then be used for capital projects and investments in equipment such as buses, security systems and technology infrastructure without raising the property tax rate itself.
How do you increase debt, reduce the allocation of funds from debt service to operations, not change the tax rate and still service the new debt?
The Fort Worth ISD has a “Aaa” credit rating and is able to obtain attractive financing at relatively low rates. As a result, the previous allocation of $0.31 to debt service generated a fund reserve over the past several years. About $15 million of this fund can be drawn down to service additional debt.
While the $750 million in bonds would be issued over six years, some of the current bonds will be paid off over the next several years, generating capacity for the additional debt. In addition, some existing bonds can be refinanced to reduce debt service cost. According to Hilltop Securities, the district’s highly respected bond finance firm, the district’s bond debt can be serviced even in a climate of rising interest rates with only moderate increases in property values.
How does the FWISD debt and property tax rate compare to other districts?
FWISD’s property tax rate of $1.35 is below average. Arlington, Birdville, Mansfield, Keller, Everman, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, White Settlement and Crowley ISDs all have higher mil rates. FWISD currently has a debt/student ratio of $8,342. Houston, Dallas and San Antonio ISDs have debt/student ratios of $14,262, $19,278 and $15,435, respectively. Fort Worth ISD’s current debt as a percentage of total taxable values is 2.71 percent, well below the 10 percent allowed by the state.
How would the money be spent?
FWISD started the planning process in October 2015 by convening a diverse group of community stakeholders to gather data on how to enhance facilities to foster student performance. As a result of many conversations and a comprehensive needs assessment, the district developed a Long-Range Facilities Plan that estimated the total cost of all projects at $1.6 billion. The projects with the greatest priority were selected for this bond.
According to the district’s plans, the funding for the projects for the elementary and middle schools would come from the “penny-swap” funds and would be spent annually over several years in a priority determined by FWISD’s facilities management team, administration and the school board. The $750 million in bond proceeds would be spent over six years as bonds are issued. The priority of the bond projects would be determined by the board, FWISD administration and the Citizens Oversight Committee with input from the community. More information about specific allocations can be found on the district’s website. (https://www.fwisd.org/Page/12666)
The majority of the bond funds, approximately $581 million, would be spent upgrading high school facilities.
Below is the FWISD’s estimate of how these funds would be allocated by category:
College and career readiness: 51.9 percent
Major renovations: 32.9 percent
Extracurricular and athletics: 11.4 percent
Security upgrades: 2.5 percent
Technology upgrades: 1.3 percent
The largest category, college and career readiness (approximately $307 million), includes the cost of modifying classroom spaces to be more collaborative, adding new science labs and support spaces and renovating career training spaces as well as the cost of new furniture and writable surfaces. Based on industry research and nationwide experience data, the FWISD believes that these upgrades will enhance student performance, aid in developing critical workplace skills and lead to greater success after graduation.
What is the status of the 2013 bond? Was all of that money spent?
Almost all of the projects identified for the prior bond have been completed. A few are still in progress and were slightly delayed due to changes in scope and the management of projects within budget in a climate of unexpected increases in construction costs. All projects will be completed by July 2018.
Why is this the best time?
The projects generated through the 2013 bond are almost all completed. Interest rates are still low and the district is in a good position financially to take on additional debt. Some of the projects such as the elementary school expansion and development projects are needed to address overcrowding. Other capital projects are needed quickly to address security and building life-cycle needs.
Will there be an oversight committee?
Yes, as with the last bond, there will be a Citizens Oversight Committee consisting of business, education and community representatives. For the last bond there were several leaders from the commercial real estate community on the committee. No doubt this committee will be composed of similarly qualified professionals to oversee the bond and provide input and oversight of projects and funding.
Can projects be changed over the years if the educational environment changes?
Since the capital projects will be completed over several years, there is flexibility with regard to how funds will be spent. Projects outlined in the $750 million bond referendum can only be changed or modified with board approval. There is more flexibility with regard to how funds will be spent with the two-cent “penny swap.” Should the landscape for certain schools, programs or technology change such that it makes more sense to deploy capital in an alternative way, this can be accomplished with approval of the Citizens Oversight Committee and the board.
What can I do?
This election is an opportunity for members of the FWISD community to invest in the future of our students and in the economic success of our city with no increase in the tax rate.
Not only will our schools be better equipped to serve our students, but the spending from the bond package will also generate almost $1.1 billion in economic activity across Tarrant County.
A continued investment and focus on improving our public schools will make Fort Worth an even more attractive city for families and corporations, large and small, looking to relocate to a thriving community.
Make sure to cast your ballot and encourage your neighbors to vote by posting on social media and talking to them about the importance of this election!
When can I vote?
Early voting is Oct. 23 through Nov. 3.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Polling locations are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Where can I vote?
A list of voting locations is on the Tarrant County Elections Administration website. For more information, call 817-831-8683.
Leadership ISD Tarrant County Alumni Association
Special thanks to Jim Sager, Leadership ISD Class of 2017. (Sager is a commercial real estate broker with Transwestern Commercial Real Estate, a 1981 graduate of Southwest High School and an active volunteer in public education.)