As the Ysleta Independent School District (YISD) celebrates their centennial, cracked exterior walls, sinking foundations, outdated classrooms and past construction woes are just a few of the issues administrators want to address through a $430.5 million bond election in just a few weeks.
On November 3rd, voters will determine whether an increase in their property tax rate, which would fund the multi-million dollar bond, would be worth the investment. Early voting begins on October 19th and runs through October 30th.
The proposed bond features a 12-cent increase property tax rate for homeowners in Ysleta ISD. Currently, the property tax rate is set at $1.36 per $100 value of a home – if the bond passes – the tax rate would increase to $1.48 per $100 value of a home.
Along with the bond, the state of Texas is including a proposition in the November election ballot that if approved, would increase the amount a homeowner can claim on their State Homestead Exemption.
According to the Texas Comptroller Office, Texas allows complete or partial exemptions from local property taxes. Homeowners who are 65 and older, under the Homestead Exemption, can choose to have their taxes frozen.
Currently, a homeowner can receive a $15,000 exemption. If voters approve both the bond and the increase of $10,000 in the Texas Homestead Exemption, homeowners may actually see a decrease in their property tax rate overall, while also helping invest in the district De La Torre said.
“If everyone in votes yes for an increase in the State Homestead Exemption, and they vote yes on the 12-cent increase – and you do the math – your taxes will drop on average by $70 next year,” Xavier De La Torre, Superintendent of Ysleta ISD said.
“When I go out and speak about this it is hard for people to understand that even though they will see an increase in their property taxes, they will be paying less next year – and for most homeowners the answer is yes,” De La Torre adds. “And they would have made a great investment in the school district.”
The district’s last successful bond election was in 2004, when voters approved a $250 million bond. The bond resulted in the construction of five new schools, 246 renovations, and the completion of 63 projects, according to district records.
Since then, the school’s and the district’s facilities have aged over 11 years and classrooms are in need of technological updates, officials said.
“That’s a class that has come and gone,” said resident James Cox.
Installation of security cameras and improved security systems throughout the district are also on the list of bond proposed projects. Other proposed projects include construction of designated gymnasiums, and cafeterias in the elementary schools.
“What happens now is when there is inclement weather, these elementary schools are trying to feed the students, and at the same time they are holding P.E. classes in the cafeteria – and this doesn’t work,” De La Torre said.
Projects include the renovation of several schools, and the construction of three new schools – Bel Air Middle School, Del Valle Middle and Mission Valley Elementary school combo; and a new Thomas Manor Elementary school.
Additional projects include the repurposing of Hillcrest Middle School as the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, which would be the first all girls public school for students in grades 6 through 12; increasing internet capabilities and access; and improving athletic facilities; and making all schools ADA compliable.
Community forums and tours
In an effort to garner support and answer questions from area residents in the Ysleta District, De La Torre and district officials hosted several community forums from late September through early October. During each of these forums 20 to 30 area residents were present.
De La Torre explained at each of these forums how residents could invest in their students through the 12-cent property tax rate increase, while also presenting how the State Homestead Exemption increase, if approved, could in fact lower their overall property taxes.
“Where’s that money coming from?” asked Irma Baca, during the Oct. 7 forum at Eastwood High School. “Is that money ultimately coming
out of our pocket somewhere? And isn’t the district also losing students? And I read that the electric company is going to increase our rates – and the school district’s so where is that money coming from?”
Based on the Jacob’s Group report, the district has lost 1,529 students from 2008 to 2009; and is expected to continue to drop to 43,000 students in 2014 to 2015 school year.
De La Torre said, based on the district’s projected enrollment, the plan is to invest in schools that are at high capacity and repurpose or sell other facilities to decrease the district’s operating budget.
“We are looking at ways to reduce our operating budget,” De La Torre said. “Our system is that we understaffed and at the first two week period at the beginning of schools, we can always hire additional teachers…(and) we can not operate and maintain 63 schools when we can have 46 schools accommodate the student population we have.”
Resident Ali Boureslon raised concerns about the bond, specifically about promises broken in 2004, when he was told Eastwood Middle School would not be torn down completely.
“I think this time it’s going to pass, and I have confidence in this community around Eastwood area, which we have a lot of benefits,” Boureslon said. “But I would like to see that a committee will be staffed when it passes, to make sure that the money is spent wisely and it’s not foolish. For each school marked the money for it, that’s the money we will use to do what we say we are going to do. We don’t want to start portioning some of it for other needs.”
De La Torre stated that, in the past, some mistakes included under-estimating the cost of bond propositions, which resulted in going back to the community and stating they needed more funds to do what they had proposed to do.
“But what we are doing this time is that every project comes with a 3-percent contingency and an annual escalation,” De La Torre said. “Because in the industry there is a 5 percent escalation.”
After the forums held on Sept. 26 and Oct. 7, visitors were invited on tours of Eastwood Middle School, Eastwood High School, and Mission Valley Middle School. A district school bus was used to transport any interested residents.
During the tour of Eastwood Middle School, participants were given a chance to see the impact of the 2004 bond, which was approved at $250 million.
According to district data funds; and what could potentially be the impact of a bond this year.
The school is equipped with 21st century classrooms, as well as a separate gymnasium for students.
The gymnasium includes a Yoga room with mats and equipment, and a separate workout room with treadmills, a free weight area, and resistance machines such as leg presses, to focus on isolated muscle groups.
At the end of the Eastwood Middle School tour, the tour bus stopped at Eastwood High School – providing a sharp contrast between the two facilities.
Band-aids, narrow hallways and drainage
Upon walking into the Fine Arts Entrance, visitors expressed how stuffy and muggy it felt inside the theater. Stale water from recent rains had not drained properly at the front of the campus and sandbags sat outside of several of the school’s doors.
Inside the building, visitors filed in slowly in an effort to make room for one another through the narrow hallways.
Yellow and brown water stains dot the ceiling tiles of the campus, and a back door on the campus fails to close – bringing up questions of security and safety De La Torre said.
“This is one of our magnetic doors,” De La Torre said while trying to close the door. “It won’t lock. You can open it from the outside.”
Inside the classrooms, two art teachers have a kiln that they can’t use because it isn’t up to code. An old restroom, deemed out of compliance, was renovated into a makeshift storage facility.
Outside, the high school’s tennis courts were repurposed as a faculty parking lot.
At the counselor’s office, a gap – more than a foot tall – limits the privacy students can have while speaking with their counselors.
At Mission Valley Middle School, built in 1989, cracks in the walls and on the foundation of the school indicate that the situation is worse.
“In one classroom, cracks between the foundation and the wall were so wide that students would roll pencils and pens to each other from separate classrooms,” principal Penelope Bankston said.
The cracks between the two classrooms have since been fixed, but it is merely a temporary fix. “We are worried about the safety of our students all the way throughout the school,” she added.
As the tour continued, cracks along the floors and the walls indicated that the school’s foundation was shifting. Windows have begun to break because of the shifting foundation and, in one classroom, a large crack in the teacher’s closet allows anyone from the outside to see inside the classroom.
In one wing of the school, students have attempted to fix the cracks by placing actual band-aids between the cracks.
“There’s no way we can repair this – it needs to be demolished and rebuilt,” Bankston said of the school’s wing.
Bathrooms are also not ADA compliant, so students who disabled must go to the nurse’s office to use an ADA compliant restroom. The campus’ drainage is also an issue, as erosion of the foundation increases when heavy rains or winds come into the area, Bankston added.
During the tour, when a resident asked why the district did not make repairs to these schools along the way, an official responded, “Because there is no money in the budget.”
We wanted to clarify the amount for those repairs, so we brought that same question to district officials. In an email response to the Herald Post, district spokeswoman Patricia Ayala said:
“It would be a monumental task to tackle a $75 million to $90 million project out of our operating budget, when we only typically end up with approximately $10 million of elective money after our staffing and fixed costs are covered, and salary increase demands take up half or more of that each year. Borrowing money for such projects can be done out of our operating budgets, but it would be at the expense of the educational costs therein.”
Previous bond attempts and voter support
According to district officials, since 2004, the district has made two attempts to get bonds approved by the community. The first bond attempt was in 2011 for $170 million. The bond failed.
The second attempt was in May 2015, when the district attempted to pass a $451.5 million for the construction, renovation, acquisition and equipment of school buildings.
A total of 12,002 voters in the Ysleta District participated in that election. However, the bond failed to pass by 334 votes.
De La Torre said while the district was able to garner support for the May 2015 bond, the lack of voters ultimately let the bond fizzle out.
“We had a consultant come in and do a post-mortem study on why the bond failed… [and] what we found was that 4 out of 5 people, ranging from the ages of 18 to 44, were very supportive of the bond. So statistically speaking it would have looked like a very favorable landslide,” he said.
“But the problem was – when the election was over – only one person in that group voted…so while the support and encouragement was good – the rhetoric only matters if you participate in the democratic process.”
De La Torre added that increases in taxes in the city, county and utilities have proved to be a challenge in getting voters on board.
“There are so many entities out there – like El Paso Electric Company, who is about to increase rates,” he said. “The city recently increased taxes, the county recently increased taxes and this at times may feel overwhelming to the community. But I think we are all trying to elevate El Paso and see El Paso become a major player in the global stage.”
During the Oct. 7 meeting at Eastwood High School, resident Salvador Gomez echoed these similar reasons for voting against the bond.
“This bond did not pass because people looked into their wallets and said, ‘I can not afford it,”” Gomez said. “And they left the voting booth and they said no. And I hope that it will happen again, every day.”
Richard Castro, owner of 21 McDonald’s restaurants in El Paso said he was for the bond.
“I am a business man and I am aware that my taxes will go up,” Castro said. “The way I see this bond it’s not about the remodeling of existing buildings, it’s not about athletic facilities, it’s about the education of our kids. It’s about a better environment for the kids – a better learning environment. This is crucial if we want our kids to be able to compete in the future. We are getting left behind.”
De La Torre added that if the bond passes, local construction companies and architectural firms would benefit and construction on bond projects would start the Spring of 2016.
A detailed report can be found on the district’s Blueprint for Excellence.