In first of several workshops, school board seeks community support for bond to fund upgrades

The Marfa Independent School District board of trustees recently held their first meeting with the public to discuss a potential taxpayer-funded school bond and took a tour of campus facilities. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

MARFA — Last week, members of the Marfa School Board of Trustees hosted their first community bond workshop in which invited members of the public threw their weight behind the idea of taxpayer-funded school bond to pay for district-wide infrastructure upgrades. 

The school board is aiming to put the bond initiative on the ballot in the upcoming November general election and will meet throughout the summer as a board and with community members to hash out the campus’s critical needs and establish public backing for the project. In order to get the bond on the ballot, the district must call the election by August 22. It has not yet been determined whether the district will opt to construct a brand new kindergarten through twelfth-grade campus or simply reconfigure existing facilities through renovation and demolition. 

“This is a menu. We’re trying to flesh out what are the critical needs, what are the priorities, and then you’re going to help the district decide how to move forward,” said Mike Rhodes, education consultant with Claycomb Associates Architects, who is assisting the district with the bond planning process, of the importance of community feedback. 

A tour of the junior and high school campus at last week’s meeting helped drum up support for the initiative — roughly a dozen community members, who were invited to participate in the process, agreed a bond was needed after witnessing multiple areas of water damage to the buildings, smelling mold, reviewing security concerns and more. 

Board President Teresa Nuñez kicked off the meeting by providing contextual timelines of the district’s two primary buildings, the elementary school and junior and senior high school, both of which were constructed in the 1900s and haven’t undergone renovations in 15 to 20 years, she said. She also stated security concerns are top priority when reconsidering campus structure in the wake of recent school shootings. Board members previously discussed how a singular K-12 campus would allow for a more secure learning environment, with all students under one roof for the majority of the day, versus the current set up, which sees children visiting numerous buildings and crossing roads to get to classrooms throughout the day. 

“We are very much in dire need of getting our schools repaired. With the recent school shootings happening all over the United States, we feel like we are an open campus,” said Nuñez. “We want to try to see if we could enclose it to have a secure campus for our children and for our staff.” 

After the brief introduction, board members and school staff led community members through the classrooms, hallways and facilities of the junior and high school campus, highlighting structural flaws and pausing for discussion. From inoperable windows and lack of a fire sprinkler system to moisture seeping up through the ground causing cracks and uneven surfaces in tile flooring, circumstances were more alarming than many who do not routinely visit the school expected. 

“I knew it was bad, but come on, not this bad,” said Florcita Zubia, a local parent. 

Board Member Lori Flores commented that parents were used to transporting their children to and from school, but often don’t step inside the campuses, so are largely unaware of the environments their children are occupying day to day. Staff said they would make themselves available going forward to community members and parents curious to see the state of the buildings. 

“Join us to see what your child is going into every day, Monday through Friday, long hours. Come inside, join their environment and tell us how you feel about it,” said Flores. 

The walkthrough raised a hefty list of concerns — the presence of problematic spots in ceilings and walls that have led to routine flooding during heavy rains, the question of whether stored chemicals in science classrooms had proper ventilation, and how a lack of hot water in campus bathrooms was likely leading to greater germ spread. Board Member Rene Gonzales noted the laundry list of repairs quickly becomes overwhelming. 

“We’re talking about classroom spaces, we’re talking about the HVAC,” said Gonzales. “We are so far behind right now.” 

The need to balance the demand for tighter security on a new campus with the desire for a modern, open feel to classrooms and student spaces, ensuring students don’t feel caged in, was also brought up. Board Member Christa Marquez said the emotional aspect of how facilities make children feel is important and is on the board’s mind as they plan for the future. 

“The elementary school, a lot of people say it feels like a prison. It’s just really big brick walls. That’s not the best environment for young children,” said Marquez of existing facilities. 

Councilmemember Raul Lara asked whether teacher housing could be considered as part of the bond, stating MISD was losing prospective teachers and students to Alpine and Fort Davis ISDs when families and newcomers are unable to relocate to Marfa proper. 

Nuñez said additional options for teacher housing were being discussed. For example, the district could purchase mobile homes and place them on plots they already own, or acquire new land with the help of the city or county. There is also the possibility the district will free up certain buildings by creating one central K-12 campus that could be utilized for teacher housing. 

The meeting reconvened in the boardroom, with architect Francis Zordilla of Claycomb Associates Architects presenting the three main options for a revised campus the board is currently considering. 

An exact dollar amount for the bond has not yet been finalized, but the district could request up to around $45 million dollars for the bond. Aguero clarified in a follow up call with The Big Bend Sentinel that the district could, in theory, bolster construction budgets with some of their own pre-existing funds, but the district’s fund balance account held just under $2 million, so wouldn’t be a good source for additional funds. The possibility of phasing the project is also still on the table. 

The most expensive option, the district’s ideal scenario, to build a brand new single-story K-12 campus where the elementary school currently stands and renovate old facilities, would cost around $54 million. The new school alone, not including additional renovations, would cost around $38 million, measure 90,000 square feet and hold up to 300 students. Construction is estimated to take around 18 to 20 months to complete, said Zordilla.

During construction, other district facilities would be modified to hold all students. The other two options, one single-story and one two-story, involve adding on to existing facilities to create a singular K-12 campus and would cost around $50 million. Rhodes said the costs per square foot to build and outfit a school was ever increasing and was currently coming in at around $375 to $400 per square foot as opposed to historical amounts of $200 to $250 per square foot. 

The subject of enrollment numbers was brought up by many, who wondered if a school with a 300 student capacity limit would be too small if the district grew, or too large if enrollment continued to decline. MISD’s enrollment has declined since 2018 and is currently sitting at around 264 students compared to around 340 in the 2018-2019 school year, according to enrollment data made public by the Texas Education Agency. 

Teacher Jaylia Foster asked whether enrollment loss was anticipated in the coming year due to a new K-8 school, Wonder School Marfa, opening this fall and homeschool methods being preferred by some since the pandemic. Aguero said the school district might lose “a couple” of students, but he was anticipating growth in the high school population in the future. 

When prompted for their thoughts, teachers supported the bond and detailed limitations to their current facilities. Elementary teacher Janet Enriquez said her teaching partner struggled to instruct 24 fourth graders in a small classroom and said the poor air circulation in the room was “torturous.” Elementary Principal Amy White added that they had experienced continued difficulties with the school heating system. Arturo Alferez, a junior high teacher and coach, said up-to-date classrooms and better technology would act as a helpful recruiting tool when bringing in new teachers. 

Jay Foster, a retired coach and teacher who worked for the district for over 20 years, brought forth some concerns the community raised with him directly about the bond, including questions as to why school repairs couldn’t be funded with COVID-19 relief monies, and how the bond would affect taxpayers 65 and over. 

Aguero responded, stating ESSER funds, which were issued to schools by Congress to help address impacts of the pandemic, were primarily meant to address losses in learning and could only in part be spent on infrastructure upgrades. Some ESSER funds would be used to address HVAC repairs, he said, but couldn’t cover much else.

As for the bond’s impacts on taxpayers over 65, Rhodes said that because of homestead exemption laws, taxes on primary residences for that sect of the population would not increase, even if appraisal values went up. However, if square footage is added on, school taxes would increase and taxes will go up on additional rental properties or businesses owned by individuals 65 and older. 

Many meeting attendees agreed disseminating clear information to the community about the taxpayer impacts, whether via mailed letters or social media, would be key moving forward. Discussion moved on to how to get cross sections of the community, even those without connections to the schools, to back the bond — in order to secure the funds, voters will have to support the initiative on the ballot, and not all Marfa residents have kids or send their kids to the public school.

Malinda Beeman, who helps run Marfa Studio of Arts, said the messaging for the bond should address perceived issues from the public, such as absentee homeowners and declining enrollment, and brought up the idea of inviting a creative member of the community to shoot a short documentary about the bond project and why it is needed. 

“I think you really need to find a voice for why this is important, and how this is going to address the future of Marfa in a real positive way,” said Beeman, noting the town’s population had changed dramatically since she arrived 23 years ago. 

Jay Foster noted the sheer amount of Airbnbs surrounding his current home and said Marfa’s population had shifted. He advocated the school be re-centered as the focal point for the local community. 

“Whatever school activities were going on, everybody supported. Now, for better or worse, you got old Marfa and you got new Marfa. Old Marfa is losing out more and more all the time,” said Foster. “You got new Marfa, they don’t support old Marfa the way they used to. They don’t support school the way they used to. And it hurts all of us.” 

Foster said Marfa ISD is also negatively impacted by the fact that it is considered a property rich district. Due to Marfa’s high property values, which have ballooned over the past decade due to a surge of buyers purchasing second homes, the school district is required to give money back to the state if property taxes are deemed in “excess” by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). 

Under Texas Education Code, certain school districts with “excess” property taxes as it relates to enrollment and attendance, are required to share property taxes with other districts throughout the state. Aguero said the amount Marfa has to pay back to the state varies from year to year, but he is projecting a million dollar payment for the 2021-2022 school year.  

Nuñez said that money could be used locally and threw out ideas as to how to bring in different segments of Marfa’s population into the school by offering their spaces up for evening culinary classes led by new local chefs for adults or by bringing in more arts and public programs. 

“We want to change the dynamics of the school. We want to bring back Shorthorn pride. We want to bring back community pride,” Nuñez said.