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CONROE — Curtis Null, the superintendent of Conroe Independent School District, is accustomed to managing growth at his suburban school district. For more than a decade, the student body has grown by about 1,500 students a year, enough to open a new campus annually.
But over the past two school years, that growth has ballooned to about 3,000 new students each year, and campuses district-wide are bursting at their seams. Administrators have done what they can to accommodate the influx, from bringing in portable buildings, hiring more teachers, rezoning schools and reallocating programs to balance out classrooms. But some of the district’s schools are still operating beyond their capacity, Null said, and a few have no room to add on more portable buildings.
“We have a whole village of portable buildings,” Null said. One elementary school has 22 portable classrooms on its campus. “When you’re dealing with growth, it’s not just about the buildings. It’s buses – we’re buying twice as many new buses as we’ve historically gotten.”
To manage the growth, the Conroe school board approved a $1.9 billion bond proposal that will appear on the November ballot. Conroe voters will decide whether the district takes on almost $2 billion in debt to fund the construction of eight new schools, additional classroom space, new technology, an outdoor swimming pool and other campus renovations.
Early voting for the Nov. 7 election begins today in Conroe and across the state. Voters statewide will decide the fate of 14 constitutional amendments. And voters in dozens of other school districts will be asked to approve similar bonds for repairs and new construction.
Bond proposals have historically been successful in Texas, with about 70% to 80% receiving voter approval each year. That trend has shifted in recent years, though. In November 2021, only 46% of school bond proposals passed, according to the Texas Association of School Boards, marking the first time that the majority of bond proposals failed.
That shift may have resulted from a 2019 state law that requires school districts to include the phrase “this is a property tax increase” in all caps on bond ballots, even if the district did not need to increase its tax rate to pay back the bond.
Conroe’s bond package would result in a two-cent tax rate increase. Skeeter Hubert, school board president for Conroe ISD, said he feels confident the Conroe bond packages will win voter approval despite that slight tax increase. A committee of 150 people met almost every week between January and June to put together the bond package. Hubert said that two-thirds of the board, which was made up of parents, administrators, teachers and community members, had to agree on the proposal for it to make it onto the ballot.
“That’s what gives me optimism,” Hubert said. “Originally, the bond was closer to $3 billion, but we just didn’t think they’d support that much, so we pared it back.”
Conroe ISD serves about 71,000 students. The city sits 40 miles north of Houston in Montgomery County and is among the fastest growing cities in Texas. A 2022 demographic study predicted the district will reach 100,000 students in 10 years. The district’s bond package is the largest in Conroe’s history and among the largest bond packages across all Texas school districts this year.
The election comes as state school funding remains in limbo. Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved legislation that would send $12.6 billion to schools to buy down property taxes. That package includes a $5.3 billion expansion of the state’s homestead exemption, raising the amount of a home’s value that can’t be taxed from $40,000 to $100,000. Voters will have to approve the tax cuts in November for the cuts to take effect this year.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate remain in a stalemate over private school vouchers, a legislative proposal that would allow Texas families to use tax dollars to send their students to private schools. After lawmakers failed to pass a voucher bill during the regular session, Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session that convened earlier this month. The Texas Senate has approved Senate Bill 1, which would allow parents to use state funds to pay for private school tuition. It now sits with the Texas House, which has historically opposed voucher-like programs.
If a voucher bill passes, districts could experience changes in their levels of state funding, which is in part determined by a district’s average daily attendance. A voucher program may motivate parents to send their child to a private school, causing decreased enrollment — and therefore funding — at public schools.
In Conroe, Null said he is skeptical that a voucher program would significantly impact enrollment. But if enrollment numbers were to drop, Null said, the district may choose to forgo adding in new schools.
“If we see a slowdown, we’ll react accordingly,” Null said. “We won’t build just because it’s voter approved.”
The Senate also recently passed Senate Bill 2, which would inject $5.2 billion into school districts to help them with teacher raises and rising costs. That money is used for the day-to-day operations of a district and can be used to increase teacher salaries. That money cannot be used for new capital projects.
School districts have long used ballot measures to fund new capital projects, in part because the money districts receive from the state cannot be used to fund new construction. Over the past five years, school districts have consistently accounted for the highest amount of tax-supported debt.
Some 76 school districts in Texas are asking voters to take on new debt this year, totaling about $17.9 billion, according to the Texas Bond Review Board. That number could be higher, the board said, because the totals won’t be clear until after the election. Other districts with large bond packages include Prosper, Aldine and Midland.
High rates of inflation have caused construction costs to go up, which in turn led to a larger bond package this year, said Greg Smith, executive director of the Fast Growth Schools Coalition.
“A lot of districts have had to put projects on hold because of inflation and supply chain issues,” Smith said. “Now, we’re seeing them play catch-up after COVID.”
Conroe’s newest high school, built 10 years ago, cost about $150 million to construct, Null said. Because of inflation, a high school of similar size and design that is part of the bond proposal will cost about $384 million.
Conroe’s bond package is separated into four different proposals, an intentional move to allow voters to approve certain investments but not others. The largest proposal would fund the new schools along with the added classrooms and renovations. The other proposals are for technology devices, an outdoor swimming pool, a new agricultural barn and physical education space.
Disclosure: Texas Association of School Boards and the Fast Growth Schools Coalition have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.