Many Questions, Few Answers on Bonds

Leslie Melson
Leslie Melson

With the clock ticking on the desire of Highland Park ISD to hold a bond election this spring, several key questions still remain.

On Thursday, HPISD trustees thanked the district’s facilities advisory committee for their efforts but stopped short of endorsing the committee’s massive proposal to relieve overcrowding, pending further discussion about costs and logistics.

The volunteer committee formally presented its ambitious proposal that would cost taxpayers between $236 million and $290 million, and would include building a fifth elementary school, tearing down and replacing Bradfield and University Park elementary schools, and significantly renovating the other four campuses while building at least two underground parking garages.

Last year, the board proposed a less costly remodel of the elementary schools within the framework of the original buildings. But committee members said they want to encourage a more long-term solution for the aging buildings that are bursting at the seams because of enrollment growth that’s forecasted to continue — perhaps approaching 10,000 students in HPISD within the next 15-20 years.

“We have a shortage in space at every campus,” said committee co-chairman Gage Prichard. “Our district deserves better, less-crowded facilities. Let’s step out and reach further and try to solve the problem.”

Of course, HPISD is still paying off bonds from a $75.4 million bond referendum in 2008 that upgraded facilities at each campus.

All schools in the district, with the exception of Highland Park Middle School, were constructed prior to 1952 and have been renovated at least seven times since then. HPMS was built in 1993 and been expanded twice. Six of the seven campuses are operating at or above their capacity (the exception is Armstrong Elementary).

“It’s bolder than anything we’ve ever done,” said trustee Joe Taylor. “It is a significantly large tax increase. There’s a political dynamic that comes into play. We have to see what the broader community thinks of a plan like this. I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing situation.”

While Taylor favored taking more time to discuss and prioritize the issues, particularly in terms of financial impact, board president Leslie Melson is optimistic that HPISD can still hold an election in May with an aggressive public-relations campaign.

HPISD is facing a Feb. 27 deadline to call a May bond election. The board will meet again on Jan. 20, and perhaps call a special meeting later that week, then will set up a series of public forums in early February to gather community input.

“We need to keep focusing on a May election. Our kids are waiting for us to build for them, but I want to make sure we’re responsible,” Melson said. “I feel like we can do collaborative work to pull this together. I’m encouraged. This is not something our community can’t handle.”

Here are three of the biggest questions still facing district administrators as they try to finalize a bond proposal:

  • How much will all this cost?

The FAC proposal gives a wide range of between $236 million and $290 million, which will need to be fine-tuned as specific items are added, dropped, or tweaked. A bond initiative of that size would likely cost taxpayers more than an extra $1,000 per year for each $1 million in property value. That figure doesn’t include any land acquisition costs related to the expected purchase of property from Northway Christian Church for the new elementary campus.

  • Where is everyone going to park?

One task for the FAC was to study parking and queuing improvements at each campus. That’s most difficult at the high school, where the committee is proposing to eliminate an existing teacher parking lot for more classroom space. The FAC recommends adding an 800-space sub-grade garage, but it’s unclear where that would go — underneath the softball field, next to the existing above-ground garage has been mentioned — or how much it would cost.

  • What about the natatorium?

This relatively small piece to the bond issue has already generated plenty of publicity. The district seems set on eliminating its existing pool at HPHS in favor of additional classrooms and labs, but finding an alternative has been difficult. The district is still waiting for University Park to decide whether it wants to partner on a natatorium, an idea that has met with significant community resistance with regard to a proposed site in Curtis Park. No other solutions have been presented yet.

2 thoughts on “Many Questions, Few Answers on Bonds

  • January 9, 2015 at 1:23 pm
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    First off, thanks to the committee members for their time and effort. Second, thanks to the board for their time both now and in the future. I can only imagine the calls each one of them will be fielding.

    It is a bold proposal, but the previous piecemeal method has run its course. I think it is time for some new facilities. We have a great school district and people are clambering to get in it.

    The number of households with an attachment to the school district has increased over the years. The compliment to that group has decreased. They were the ones that in the past were the most vocal about opposing any new facilities. So, I believe, there’s a greater chance of the bond passing. Not that you won’t hear some squealing about it.

    I would hope that we as a district will be diligent financially and try to get the best price in all cases for this proposal. In my limited volunteer roles I believe there were some times that we didn’t get the best price. I think there’s a belief that if you live in Highland Park/University Park you don’t ask how much something is because you don’t want people to think you don’t have enough money. Therefore, it gives way to people believing that we have lots of money and are not concerned about price.

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  • January 9, 2015 at 2:15 pm
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    I hope the board doesn’t rush to put something on the ballot before everything has been analyzed. Targeting Feb. 27 seems aggressive when the report hasn’t been reviewed by the citizenry. If anything, I’d put the funding for the purchase of the Northway Church land on the ballot and leave the rest off as the land purchase is probably the least controversial aspect of the bond. I’d hate to see the district not do anything and if they try to lump everything together, including the razing of 2 very functional buildings, I’m afraid that may be what happens. Alternatively, if they put everything on the ballot now, I hope they break it up because the people I’ve heard from all support the fifth campus but are still skeptical on the other aspects.

    By the way, thanks to the people who have served on the committee. We may not all agree with the recommendations, but we should all appreciate their willingness to serve and dedicate their time to this important issue.

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