Marfa ISD’s $57 million bond proposal for new K-12 school rejected by voters

A campaign yard sign showing support for the school bond, which did not win voter approval in the November 8 General Election. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

MARFA —  The Marfa Independent School District’s $57 million bond initiative for a new K-12 campus and other district-wide improvements has been rejected by local voters, with 507 voting against and 280 voting for the proposal in the November 8 General Election.

In a statement Tuesday night, Superintendent Oscar Aguero expressed disappointment with the outcome and pledged to continue working towards campus improvements.

“The community has spoken. It is not the message we had hoped for, but you have our pledge that Marfa ISD will continue to provide a high quality education for our students,” said Aguero. “Our facility challenges will not disappear, and the Board of Trustees and I will reconvene and come up with another plan to address these issues. Thank you for making your voice heard.”

If passed, the bond initiative would have raised property taxes to fund a new K-12 campus, a career and technology addition to the high school, and additional renovations. School board members argued that a new campus would address safety concerns and costly structural issues with the existing buildings. Skeptics had raised concerns about the hefty price tag amidst inflation, rising property taxes and the school’s declining enrollment rate.

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel Wednesday morning, Aguero said the negative feedback, which seemed to surge once the district called the election in August, was not surprising but was disappointing, mostly because the district held a series of community meetings throughout the summer designed to garner public feedback about the proposed bond, which had sparse attendance. 

“We gave [the] opportunity for them to talk to us directly. And that didn’t happen. We got a few here and there,” said Aguero. “We knew it was going to be a tough battle because we’re [in] one of those places where the community truly is taking on the responsibility of debt.” 

He said he was encouraged by the fact that almost 800 people showed up to vote in the bond election. He said considering nearly 36% of voters were for the initiative shows if they were to go out for the bond again a majority vote was attainable. 

Now that the bond proposal has failed to pass, though, district leaders and the school board will need to reassess how they performed in the bond election and how to move forward, said Aguero. In response to the feedback that some voters felt ill-informed or didn’t understand the bond, Aguero said he thought the proposition for a new K-12 was straightforward, but in the future the board might consider more public forums and town meetings to explain the bond. 

He said a point he will emphasize in the future is why the construction budget was $57 million, a price many thought seemed astronomical, but Aguero argued was simply the cost of a new school building in this day and age, which he noted will only increase overtime due to inflation. 

Aguero floated the idea of more frequent open houses of the district’s campus over a longer period of time so more residents could see the state of the schools for themselves. 

At the USO, where voting for the November 8 General Election and school bond election took place, the school district’s election was separated from the main ballot. Aguero said that was an intentional strategy on behalf of the district, which thought if people chose to actively participate they were more likely to be enthusiastic and to vote for the bond. 

“Trying to keep it off the main ballot was kind of a thought process we had of saying, ‘Okay, now, they’re gonna go to ours and they’re voting on ours because it is of interest to them — it’s not just on the ballot,” said Aguero. 

Aguero said the district may reevaluate that strategy in the future when putting any bond proposals up for a public vote. The district can go out for the same amount in another election, and may plan to do so in this May’s city election or next fall’s general election, he said. 

But the price tag may continue to be a hurdle. $57 million was the maximum the district was allowed to ask for, and with inflation, the cost to build a new school will increase, he said. If the district decides to put another bond initiative on the ballot, the project might need to be approached in stages in order to avoid hitting that ceiling. 

“The way inflation is most likely going to be, we’re looking at a four to eight percent increase [over the year]. It’s going to be closer to $62 million, so we wouldn’t be able to afford to go for everything at once,” said Aguero. 

In the meantime, the district must maintain its existing facilities. Aguero said the board and staff are set to reassess their budget this week and go over forthcoming facilities needs. So far this school year, the district has dipped into reserve funds to pay for unexpected gym roof and plumbing repairs. Aguero said the district’s schools are simply well beyond their expected lifespan, the elementary school being 65 years old and the high school being built in 1926. 

He said spending more on keeping up the district’s older buildings could inevitably lead to cuts in other areas, like extracurriculars or staff. “Now we’re going to have to refocus and say, what are the priorities? What do we predict those priorities to be costing us? And what are we willing to no longer either offer or be able to do?”