May 18, 2022 629 PM
MARFA — Marfa Independent School District is in the early stages of planning a bond proposal for construction to improve the district’s facilities, which could appear on the ballot in this November’s general election.
A set price and exact scope of the proposal has yet to be determined, but the district will soon form a community committee that will meet over the summer to assess the district’s aging facilities and brainstorm priorities for the bond. That committee will be made up of members from cross-sections of the community who will work to garner public support for the bond.
Superintendent Oscar Aguero said that, for now, everything is on the table, and it will ultimately be up to the committee to determine the district’s critical infrastructure needs.
“It could be as simple as just a new elementary school or it could be an entirely new kindergarten through 12th grade building. It could be that they decided that we just need to renovate what we have,” said Aguero. “The biggest advice I’ve been given is to listen to the community.”
The district’s main campus currently consists of eight buildings constructed in various decades with staggered renovations. The school board has heavily discussed the need to upgrade their facilities in recent months, working from an online dashboard provided by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), to review the status of roofs, HVAC systems, plumbing and more. A representative from TASB said at a previous meeting that many of the HVAC and plumbing units were well past their anticipated life and swift action was needed to address the aging systems.
Ongoing concerns over school security as well as ADA accessibility and how to bring Marfa ISD’s facilities into a 21st century learning environment have also been a topic of frequent discussion. Board members recently toured the campus, weaving in and out of classrooms in the high school and elementary schools, noting windows that were unable to open, inadequate classroom sizes, and overall areas for improvement.
The school board voted this year to spend nearly $1 million on a new high school track, which is set to be completed by the end of May. The money for the track came out of their fund balance account — leftover revenue, either from state funding or property taxes, that a school district keeps in reserves. But with such a significant list of costly projects on the horizon, the district is considering issuing a bond to help pay for the school’s reimagined future.
The community committee will be made up of six to eight staff members, six to eight parents and six to eight community members, said Aguero. They will meet weekly from June to July and will present their recommendations to the board in August. The deadline for the district to call the election is August 18.
School bonds must first be approved by voters and involve raising property taxes in order to pay for loans issued to school districts by investors. The school district has passed two bonds in the past, according to data made available by the Texas Bond Review Board: one for $5,000,000 for a new building in 2000 and another for $2,900,000 for two new gymnasiums in 2007.
Aguero said the district has been working on paying off previous loans and lowering interest rates in the process. A new bond, he acknowledged, would cause a tax increase. As of late March, the district has been working with Claycomb Associates, Architects, who will assist the district in the bond process and likely be awarded construction contracts if the bond passes.
In addition to the eight buildings on the primary campus being considered for renovation or replacement with the bond, teacher housing, including the school’s existing properties dispersed around the northwest side of town, as well as the concept of purchasing land and constructing new homes, could be included in the bond.
Aguero said the next step for the school board is to set up a workshop, which they hope to do very soon, in order for board members to fully comprehend the bond process and begin assessing possible numbers.
Both Balmorhea and Alpine ISDs are currently pursuing construction projects being funded by school bonds. Balmorhea passed a $75,000,000 bond in 2019 to construct a brand-new kindergarten through 12th grade campus. Alpine narrowly passed, with 1,644 for and 1,602 against, a roughly $20 million bond to upgrade the elementary school HVAC and to erect a new highschool building. The district recently hit a snag as their major subcontractor pulled out of the project, which could cause a delay should they not find a replacement in time.
According to data from the Texas Bond Review Board, in this past November’s election only 47% of 110 total proposed school bonds passed, the first time more bond proposals were rejected than accepted since 2011.
Martin Luby, Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said the bond process from start to finish typically lasts, on average, from three to five years. But with interest rates and cost of materials on the rise, it is advantageous to act sooner rather than later, he said, to keep costs lower for taxpayers. But a price tag for a new — or heavily renovated — facility isn’t cheap, he said.
“When you’re building new school buildings, especially everything that goes into them and the requirements for construction, these are usually pretty expensive projects,” said Luby. “And they do add to the taxpayer burden.”
Luby said school bonds are typically paid off for a period of ten to thirty years. He said the positive aspect of utilizing a bond for school construction is that it results in intergenerational equity by spreading the cost of acquiring a new school across multiple generations.
“It forces multiple generations of taxpayers to pay the debt and that’s a good thing,” said Luby. “Because multiple generations of taxpayers are going to be benefiting from this indebtedness to build a new school.”
In Marfa, home appraisal values continue to rise and voters across Texas recently passed two constitutional amendments that seek to provide homeowner relief from school taxation. One will continue to freeze and lower over time school property tax bills for those who are disabled or over age 65, and another will increase the general homestead exemption for public school taxes from $25,000 to $40,000. The general homestead exemption does not apply to secondary homes, only primary residences.
From an investors perspective, said Luby, Marfa’s demand for housing is an indicator that the local tax base is expanding.
“The fact that you’ve got a growing community, at least in terms of demand for housing, even if it’s secondary housing, that’s a good thing from a credit perspective,” said Luby. “Because it speaks to the strength of the repayment source and the repayment pledge of the debt.”