SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez addresses the crowd following voter approval of a $450 million bond in 2016. Credit: Courtesy / SAISD

San Antonio Independent School District trustees on Tuesday night set in motion a plan for the largest bond issue in district history, totaling almost $1.25 billion.

If the board votes to place the bond package on the November ballot and voters pass the measure, it would be the largest bond package ever passed by a San Antonio school district or municipal entity. Voters in the City’s largest school district, Northside ISD, passed an $849 million bond in 2018, the largest bond in the district’s history. The year before, San Antonio voters approved an $850 million municipal bond, the largest bond in city history.

On Tuesday night, SAISD trustees approved the formation of a bond advisory committee, the first step in a long process that will culminate with a board vote this summer to place the bond package on a crowded November ballot that’s headed by a presidential contest.

The committee comprises three appointed representatives from each single-member district and three representatives appointed by the superintendent. Mario Barrera and Victoria Moreno-Herrera, who ran the same committee for the 2016 SAISD bond, will chair the group.

“You can’t have a 21st century city if you don’t have a 21st century inner-city school district,” Barrera said, recalling a common saying of former Mayor Julián Castro. “Some of these facilities haven’t been touched since 1968.”

The 2020 bond committee will work to evaluate the the current state of district facilities and prioritize a “daunting” list of needed improvements, Barrera said.

Passage of the bond would not result in a tax increase because of ongoing development within the district’s boundaries, said Vanessa Hurd, SAISD’s chief of external relations.

“Since I came to the district, I’ve been hoping that kind of development would gain traction in our boundaries,” Superintendent Pedro Martinez said. “Now that we see that development, it is going to help us fund the facilities that match our academic growth.”

SAISD officials began assessing facility needs back in 2018, Chief Operating Officer Willie Burroughs said Wednesday. The district hired consultants to review the needs of each of SAISD’s campuses and created a list of district-wide potential projects.

The result was a 2030 master plan and an inventory of needed improvements with an estimated total cost between $2 billion and $2.5 billion. SAISD aims to address the entire list by 2030 under the guise of a promise to voters that all SAISD campuses will be on a path to renovation by that time.

Burroughs emphasized the need for a master plan, saying it would lay out the future of SAISD and bring forethought to a district with aging facilities.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” he said, quoting scripture. “When you don’t have a plan, you really set yourself up for failure. You want to be able to look at the whole picture.”

While the list of projects has not been finalized, the work also will focus on strategic investments to boost enrollment. The work is also driven by a desire to improve facilities to match academic aspirations for the district.

“Our ambition for our kids needs to mirror what we’re providing in our facilities,” Hurd said.

In the bond, the district looks to fulfill a three-fold promise to district voters, Hurd said. By the completion of the 2020 bond, every classroom will have upgraded technology to 21st century standards, every classroom will have upgraded security, primarily in the form of cameras, and every campus with an outdated chiller providing air conditioning will have it replaced.

“For an urban district like SAISD, when you look at just the history of renovation, capital investments, we have a significant number of schools which haven’t been touched for at least 20 years,” she said. “In fact, 44 of our schools fall into that category.”

The newly approved 2020 bond committee will start meeting in February or early March with the goal of prioritizing the needed projects and cutting the total list roughly in half for a 2020 bond referendum, with an additional bond planned later in the decade.

The 2020 bond likely would be proposed in two propositions – one for facility improvements and one for investments in technology – with both expected to be on the November ballot.

SAISD officials anticipate that the committee will recommend approval for a $1.25 billion bond in August. A political action committee to support the bond likely will come together in June, officials said.

SAISD voters last passed a $450 million bond in 2016 for renovation projects at 13 schools. The 2016 package gained approval from 72 percent of voters and most of the 2016 bond work will be completed by 2021, Burroughs said.

In the coming months, SAISD’s bond committee will host public forums at individual schools, seeking feedback on what projects should be prioritized. Bond money will be apportioned based on need, not divided evenly among each single-member district.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.