Two months from now, when El Pasoans vote in the Nov. 8 election, the top item on the ballot won’t be the presidential race. It will be a $668-million bond proposition for the El Paso Independent School District.
It’s the biggest bond election in El Paso history. School officials say its passage would have a profound impact on education for a generation and more. So would its failure.
In 2000, the district had 62,000 students. That number is down to 58,000 today, and it’s expected to level off at about 55,000 in a few years.
Over the next 20 years, about 84,000 students will walk the halls and sit in the classrooms of El Paso ISD schools.
Facing declining enrollment and decades-old schools that don’t meet basic technology needs – much less security –EPISD hired the respected Jacobs engineering firm to review the state of the district.
Jacobs came back with a report saying the district needs to spend $1.2 billion building some new schools and partially rebuilding others, while consolidating and/or closing several more.
The district formed an 80-person committee that spent six months looking at what the district could do and had to do to meet the needs of students and taxpayers. Earlier this year, the committee recommended one big bond, and assuming its approval, moving aggressively to effectively rebuild and the El Paso ISD school system.
What if it fails? The district has no contingency plan.
“There’s been a lot of effort to prepare for this,” EPISD Superintendent Juan Cabrera told El Paso Inc. “We’re very aggressively going to work to pass the bond and quickly implement it. We’re not putting any time or effort into ‘what if.’ That would start Nov. 9 if we weren’t successful.”
The plan is to have everything done in five years.
Cabrera and the school board’s president, Dori Fenenbock, met with El Paso Inc. to talk about the bond proposition, why the district thinks it’s needed all at once, and why now is the time to decide.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: The school district established an 80-member committee to go through the Jacobs study and make recommendations. Who were the 80?
Fenenbock: They were teachers, administrators, parents and business leaders. Teacher organization reps were there, along with a wide variety of community members and some students.
Q: Were they unanimous in their recommendation?
Fenenbock: Ultimately. But they came from different areas of the district, so they had certain schools they were trying to champion. That was part of the process. They had to storm through those various differences and they spent a lot of time touring schools, understanding the needs, understanding safety and security and technology.
Q: So it was their recommendation to put $668 million to the voters, all at once?
Fenenbock: Yes. We had survey data showing that without any information about the projects, without understanding the need and the tax impact, the question was simply put to people: Would you approve a $600-million bond for EPISD today? Sixty percent of them were in favor. So that to us was great news.
Q: What about taxes?
Fenenbock: When they learned of the tax impact, that approval rate dropped significantly. When we walked through the project and the opportunities with them, support goes even higher to 65 percent.
Q: Were you surprised by the recommendation to go for so much all at once?
Fenenbock: Before the committee started their work, the administration and trustees were talking about having $1.2 billion in needs and maybe we could look at this in three sets of $400 million over 15 years. That’s frankly where I thought the committee would go.
So we were surprised when they came back with such a high number. When I asked committee members afterwards how it got so large, they said seven of the 10 high schools are getting rebuilt fully or partially and we have safety and security issues and technology needs. It was very difficult to prioritize one high school over another when the needs are so severe right now.
They felt there was tolerance in the survey for $600 million, and they were in that range and they felt strongly about the number and the projects.
Q: Was there talk of coming back with another proposition later, given the $1.2 billion in needs?
Fenenbock: In this bond, there are opportunities for operating efficiencies and selling property that will help us address some of the second half of the problem. As we get into these projects, we’ll have a better idea of whether we can manage that or not.
Cabrera: It’s 16 sites that will go into seven new rebuilds. Sixteen elementary schools being built into seven K through 8 sites.
Q: Can you talk a little about all that?
Cabrera: I think it’s important that we talk about the consolidations. If you look at the history of EPISD, nobody’s attempted to close this many schools. Given the fact that we have trustees that aren’t just worried about political expediency, it’s important that the community get behind them in this effort to reach out and close nine schools.
Fourteen closures were recommended by the (appointed) board of managers. Now we’re down to nine. Some folks are concerned that we just want to build new prettier schools for the kids. In these 16 campuses – and we’re talking about going down to seven – we committed that everybody was going to go from their old school to a better school.
Then, none of the seven high schools are complete rebuilds. In every instance, we’re saving a building that was built in the last 15 or 20 years. You’ll see that at Coronado, El Paso, Andress, Irvin, Austin, Jefferson, Burges. If you look at the bond, there are the seven new buildings while we’re closing nine schools. Then you have these seven high schools that are getting partial rebuilds. That’s essentially all the construction.
Q: What will the nine closures mean for those areas?
Cabrera: From an efficiency standpoint, nine closures is great for us in terms of trying to get closer to what more modern districts that have grown in the suburbs do now. Our typical school is a 200-to-400 student elementary, 600-to-800 middle and 1,500-to-2,000 student high schools.
The new districts that are run a lot different from us can pay higher salaries and have high schools with 3,000 to 4,000 students, middle schools with 1,200 to 1,800 and elementaries between 700 and 1,000, and some even bigger.
Q: Those are big schools. Does it work?
Cabrera: It doesn’t impact the class sizes, but you have more classrooms in one building, so you’re much more efficient in the way you operate. For us to be able to compete with Socorro ... Every major legacy city has a Socorro. Dallas has Frisco. Houston has Sugarland and all these districts.
Q: By that you mean an outlying community where people seem to be going, where they have new schools?
Cabrera: It’s just suburban growth. The inner core of every major city has suffered across America. They just build a lot more of these larger schools that are more efficient to operate.
Q: That’s what you are doing?
Cabrera: We’re not going to be able to do that, ever. But we’re going to do our best to get as close as we can to that model. We have 12,000 more kids than Ysleta or Socorro. But Ysleta has 30 fewer buildings and Socorro had 42 fewer.
You don’t have to be a financial analyst to figure out that you can’t compete financially if you’re maintaining that many more buildings, especially old buildings with deferred maintenance. Seventy percent of our buildings still have swamp coolers, and that means inefficient windows and seals and doors and a lot of cost to maintain.
Fenenbock: At Coronado, for example, they count on those breezeways for air circulation, so it’s insecure. You can’t secure that campus. Anyone can get access to the campus at any time. Safety and security are a big part of this.
Q: What about the elementary schools?
Fenenbock: We’re consolidating into some K through 8s – kindergarten through eighth grade. There’s great research on their benefits. Fewer transitions to another school lead to better academic success because when kids transition, there’s anxiety. They have to grow up faster. Parents aren’t involved in middle school the way they are in elementary. So they stay involved with their kids’ education and their teachers longer. So we’re building K-8s across the district.
Q: Do teachers like this? Have you done any polling?
Cabrera: We haven’t done any surveys. But the presidents of the two largest teacher organizations were part of this process.
Q: Are there political action committees getting into this, raising money and putting up signs?
Fenenbock: Yes. The PAC is called El Paso Rising and the kickoff will be Sept. 10. We’ve raised money and have broad and growing support.
Q: Who is El Paso Rising?
Fenenbock: There are about 30 people in the PAC. The chairs are Jaime Barceleau and Melita Garcia and Mari Van Pelt.
Q: What happens to the number of teachers in the district if this passes?
Cabrera: We have about 4,000 teachers. We’ve lost 4,400 kids in the last four years and we manage that aggressively through attrition. We lose on average between 400 and 600 staff members a year through retirements or folks moving on.
Historically, we were hiring many people to make up for that. We haven’t had to do that since I’ve been here.
Our goal is to manage a decline. Based on the data we’ve got, we would level off at about 55,000 kids, and we fully expect we can manage all that through attrition. But we need fewer staff. This is not about protecting jobs; it’s about making sure we’re efficient and have the right number of staff for the kids.
Q: How will you spread out the bond sales and the projects to reduce the impact on taxpayers?
Fenenbock: The goal is three to five years.
Q: Then you’ll beat the city on its quality of life bond projects.
Cabrera: We’re going to get aggressive.
Fenenbock: We’re behind on these projects. Our kids need modern, safe learning environments, technology to deliver programs and curriculums we want to bring to the district. We just can’t wait.
But we want to make sure we’re rolling this out responsibly and we can manage it well and we’re not taxing the local community too much in terms of their contractors and capacity to get the projects done.
Q: How did the district get in the situation of needing a $668-million bond and having to move so quickly?
Cabrera: We’ve got a history of corruption and trustees that weren’t taking care of the district, that weren’t building the buildings. To me there was a lot of horse-trading going on. That’s just my observation.
Now we’ve got responsible trustees that are ethically looking at this and creating a true facilities plan. It has to get fixed.
Q: Would unused schools sit empty or will you get rid of them?
Cabrera: They’re not going to sit empty. We’re going to start the process before the bond election with the community, and with the city and other agencies, to figure out what to do with the land – quickly.
We’ve got a couple of retail properties, such as the Morehead land on Mesa, where Roberts is on Thorn and I-10. Those certainly have retail opportunities.
Maybe Bonham could be apartments as a way to get housing back into the core, where those families can go to our schools.
Fenenbock: Hopefully in residential areas we can have infill development, such as Mitzy Bond, a perfect place to build new homes.
Q: Do you think there’s a demand for homes right now?
Cabrera: It all goes back to the city and incentives. The two or three larger builders we have in down need 200 to 300 acres. But there are many second- and third- tier builders that could do 30 to 50 homes and make a profit, especially if they’re incentivized by the city.
Q: What happens if this fails?
Fenenbock: If the bond doesn’t pass, the needs of the school district are still going to be there. Some schools are going to have to close because we can’t continue to operate this many buildings and this many schools with declining enrollment.
We’ve got tremendous momentum in the community. I think the survey shows that. We need to continue building on this momentum. I am certain this is the right thing that we need to do to move our community forward.