Image: Conroe Independent School District Superintendent Curtis Null didn’t have many “facts” about education outcomes when he spoke to the Montgomery County Tea Party meeting in Conroe on Monday, February 18, 2019. Null presented a carefully-scripted presentation but was unable to answer many factual questions about the proposed $807 million, plus interest, bond and tax hike.
Conroe, February 20 – Conroe Independent School District (CISD) Superintendent Curtis Null, along with four additional high-level CISD representatives, was unable to identify any positive educational outcomes from the proposed $807 million bond package he and six of the seven CISD Board of Trustees members are vociferously attempting to advocate. Null began his remarks by saying “My purpose here is simply to share facts with you. Let me introduce Marcus Deitz, our bond counsel. His job is to make sure I stay on script.”
“My purpose here is simply to share facts with you. Let me introduce Marcus Deitz, our bond counsel. His job is to make sure I stay on script.” – – Conroe Independent School District Superintendent Curtis Null, February 18, 2019.
Null then presented a slide show, which is identical to the bond package advocacy section of the CISD website, some highlights of which were:
- CISD has 63,091 students enrolled and is the eleventh largest school district in Texas by student population.
- CISD has 4,264 teachers, librarians, nurses, and counselors, 1,833 support personnel, and 1,553 “auxiliary personnel.”
- The average CISD teacher salary is $56,876, which is about three thousand dollars per year higher than the average teacher salary in Texas.
- CISD has grown approximately 1,500 students per year during the past decade.
- CISD has six high schools.
- CISD based its bond package on a demographic study projecting growth of 1,350 students per year for the next ten years.
- CISD’s tax rate is $1.28 per $100 valuation of which $1.06 is for the maintenance and operations (“M&O”) fund, which runs the day-to-day operations, and $.22 for interest and the sinking debt service fund. The State of Texas takes a portion of the M&O fund (about $24 million per year) to redistribute to poorer schools districts each year.
- 89.2% of the CISD budget is for salaries. 60.94% of CISD’s budget ostensibly is for instruction (although the Texas Education Agency (TEA) website lists a substantially lower amount).
- CISD’s general fund balance is $178 million. The TEA recommends 25% of the operational budget in a fund balance savings account. The Board of Trustees skims any excess funds each year to spend on capital projects. The Board has taken $100 million of funds in that manner to use on capital projects during the past ten years.
- Current debt is $1.20 billion for CISD and the average length of bond maturity is 18 years.
- CISD has received a 5-star rating for academic and financial accountability by the Texas Smart Schools, a pro-government advocacy organization.
- CISD’s graduate rate is 95.9%, as of 2017. Null added “everything in academics focuses on this one statistic.” [Publisher’s Note: Sadly, Null is grossly incorrect. Academic evaluation of public schools draws off of four statistics, reading comprehension at the fourth grade level, mathematics ability at the eighth grade level, graduation rate, and postsecondary participation rate, according to the Education Week Research Center.]
- In 2004, CISD issued a $280 million bond package with a 2.7 cent tax rate increase.
- In 2008, CISD issued a $507 millon bond package with a 5 cent tax rate increase.
- In 2015, CISD issued a $487 million bond package with no tax rate increase. [Publisher’s Note: CISD has increased its actual taxation at a much brisker pace than Null’s deceptive statements about increases in the tax rates. CISD has not had to increase its tax rate, because it has elected individuals to the Montgomery Central Appraisal District Board of Directors who have set aggressive tax appraisal increases during that same period of time, including Precinct 1 Montgomery County Commissioner Mike Meador, Precinct 2 Montgomery County Commissioner Charlie Riley, former Precinct 3 Montgomery County Commissioner Ed Chance, and Bruce Tough, a former CISD Trustee.]
- Null told the crowd the tax rate of CISD has gone down a penny since 2012. [Publisher’s Note: In actuality, CISD taxes have skyrocketed, because property tax appraisal rates have gone up enormously during the same time period.]
- Null told the audience that the Facilities Planning Committee (FPC) had 27 citizens from all parts of the district. [Publisher’s Note: The FPC had 38 members, 14 of whom were CISD employees, including Null and his Deputy Superintendent.]
- The FPC recommended $827.4 million as the bond package to the Board of Trustees. The Board approved $807 million, because CISD had “excess cash on hand” to spend on $20 million of the projects.
- The bond amounts include $192 for three new elementary schools (Conroe, Grand Oaks, Grangerland) and junior high school (Grangerland).
- The bond amounts include $270 million for “growth and sustainability”, including a major renovation of Conroe High School, a renovation of Caney Creek High School, a renovation of York Junior High School, Phase I of a mechanical overhaul of Oak Ridge High School, and the addition of science labs and robotics buildings for both high schools in The Woodlands.
- The bond amounts include $24 million for safety improvements for which there is little specific planning, because Null said they’ll watch what requirements there are from the Texas Legislature.
- The bond amounts include $88 million of “invasive maintenance.”
- The bond amounts include $62 million of “campus improvements and renovations” including new gymnasiums in two schools, major repairs at Glen Loch Elementary and Creighton Elementary School, as well as artificial turf for sports fields at some of the high schools.
- The bond amounts include $14 million for agriculture facilities.
- The bond amounts include $60 million for buses and related transportation needs.
- The bond amounts include $36 million for technology infrastructure such as cable, safety and security, networks and “infrastructure.”
- The bond amounts include $20 million for land purchases for future schools if land comes available.
- The bond will definitely cause 1 cent tax rate increase for the next fiscal year and possibly 2 additional cents in the tax rate. [Publisher’s Note: The actual tax increase will be substantially higher as a result of property tax appraisal increases.]
Null clearly had enormous difficulty answering questions from the audience. The questions he refused to answer had nothing to do with advocacy but rather when audience members asked difficult questions.
Null began to deflect on the first question from longtime Republican Precinct Chairman Jim “Pops” Doyle, who asked “Why don’t you have bond referendums in November of even numbered years to increase voter turnout?” Null’s bond counsel Deitz quickly jumped in and said, “Texas statutes only allow elections to be held in May or November but that’s up to the discretion of the school board. They exercised their discretion.” [Publisher’s Note: In other words, neither Null nor Deitz answered the question the truthful answer to which would be “because we want low voter turnout.”]
Renowned education expert, conservative Republican activist, and Magnolia area Republican Precinct Chair Ginger Russell asked, “Who prepared all of the handouts for the Facilities Planning Committee to review through the process?” Null answered, “Sarah Blakelock,” who is the CISD’s official spokesperson. [Publisher’s Note: Null and Blakelock carefully controlled the information the FPC members received, so they would get the bond package recommendation they wanted.]
Null explained that CISD hoped to build a $23 million teacher training center next to Woodforest Stadium for continuing education classes for teachers.
Robert Harden asked, “American high school graduates are among the least educated in the world, according to recent data. Is anything being done to improve the product of public schools?” Null answered, “Our goal is to graduate competent graduates that are prepared to go into the workforce and be great citizens.”
Adrian Kaiser, a Republican Precinct Chairman who is currently running for the Magnolia ISD Board in the May 4 election, asked “How will spending $23 million on turf improve educational outcomes?” Null answered, “I’ll leave that to the board.” At that point, Trustee Skeeter Hubert interjected, “I understand turf is a hot topic. Conroe High School will lose quite a bit of practice field. We have to give them something they can all practice on at any one time.” [Publisher’s Note: Neither Null nor Hubert answered Kaiser’s question about turf.]
April Andreski, a curriculum developer, asked “Why are high schools getting turf upgrades, but junior highs can’t get lights?” Hubert answered, “We just haven’t done lights.”
Andreski followed up and asked, “What is the percentage of kids who will use the turf facilities on a daily basis?” Hubert answered, “I don’t know.” Null and Deitz shrugged their shoulders. Null added, “I don’t know. I don’t have any specific number. Drill teams and the bands go to Woodforest stadium which already has turf. When kids go home after football, other sports leagues utilize our fields as well.”
An audience member asked how contractors are determined for each of the lucrative CISD jobs. Hubert answered that CISD takes public bids but also engages in a subjective process to evaluate how good the potential vendors are.
Several audience members asked “How many students are not U.S. citizens?” Hubert tried to avoid the question by saying, “I have no idea. I’m not in admissions. We’re not allowed to ask those questions.”
Gail Schure asked, “There’s a problem in elementary schools where children don’t learn to read and they show up eventually at Lone Star College and require remedial reading courses after graduating from CISD. There’s something wrong with that. What will this bond do to fix that problem?”
Hubert vaguely answered, “I’m not sure what that has to do with the bond. Classrooms are different today from 50 yrs ago. Family dynamics are different from 50 to 60 yrs ago. As a school board we go to every single campus where we have the best teachers and balance what we can afford and what we can provide.”
Null explained in response to another question that “everything in the package is legally allowable.” He also said, “The driver of the package is our demographic study showing district growth.”
Republican Party Treasurer John Hill Wertz asked why construction costs have soared for elementary schools in CISD. Null answered, “We build bigger schools, but costs have also escalated.”
It took audience members two attempts to find out what the interest rate would be on the $807 million of bonds. At first CISD Chief Financial Officer Darrin Rice answered the question about interest rate by explaining that CISD’s debt service annually will be $140 million per year. Eventually Rice told the audience the projected rate for the bonds would be 3.8% to 4.5%.
Republican Precinct Chairman James Byers of Oak Ridge North asked, “What has changed so dramatically that we need to have twice as much in this bond?” Null answered, “Our last committed reduced some things in their bond package which we have rolled into this package. The goal of the last package was to keep the tax rate increase at 1 cent or less.”
Kaiser concluded the questions with one more attempt, “How is turf in the fields going to improve the education of the students?” Null stepped down from the podium and gave the microphone to Trustee Ray Sanders. Sanders deflected the question with the following answer:
“The message is more about utilization of the fields than anything else. I can’t speak directly to education, except that bands or drill teams need practice, and they won’t get that experience. It’s a utilization factor. More people can utilize the fields than before. I want to add that I believe students need a lot of extracurricular activities, because it makes them more rounded as adults.”
[Publisher’s Note: The bottom line is that taxpayers – our children – will have to pay $807 million, plus interest, in tax hikes for an unnecessary bond package which will not impact the educational outcomes of CISD students one iota!]