Sam Houston High School.
Sam Houston High School is among the campuses SAISD is seeking improvements through a bond. Renovations include overhaul or replacement of athletic facilities. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In a year already remarkable for San Antonio Independent School District because of the rapid shift to remote learning, district voters face an unprecedented ask. On the November ballot, the district seeks voter approval on a $1.3 billion bond package, the largest bond proposal in the city’s history.

Broken into two propositions, approved bond funding would support the renovation of 21 campuses with main buildings that haven’t been fully renovated in decades, the completion of renovations that started in previous bonds at another 15 schools, upgraded air conditioning, and security systems, and technology improvements to all campuses.

Improving district facilities is an equity issue, Superintendent Pedro Martinez argues. In describing the need for the bond, Martinez often cites the reaction SAISD students have when attending academic competitions in districts on San Antonio’s North Side. They’re in awe of the upgraded campuses, he says.

“I myself have gotten a chance to go to some of these competitions and I am shocked to see those differences,” Martinez said. “Those districts have had master plans, have been issuing bonds on a regular basis, they’ve built the support base, and they have an amazing tax base.”

This kind of regular bond schedule and facility planning has been lacking in San Antonio ISD, said Mario Barrera, the 2020 bond committee co-chair.

SAISD voters approved a bond in 1985, another one in the 1990s, and a small bond focused on music buildings in 2001. They voted down a bond focused on high schools in 2005. It took another five years before voters passed another bond. The district was already behind its neighboring counterparts in 2001 and fell further behind before getting on the current trajectory of facility improvement in 2010, Barrera said.

SAISD’s tax base couldn’t have supported the needed improvements without large tax rate increases, Barrera added. For many years, new developments eschewed the center of the city, instead locating in other school districts, and the tax base suffered. But 10 years ago, then-Mayor Julián Castro acted to reinvigorate downtown and the surrounding areas, bringing new sources of revenue to SAISD.

From 2014 to 2015, the assessed value of SAISD’s property tax base grew by 11 percent. Martinez joined the district in 2015 and growth continued as new projects such as Frost Tower, apartment complexes near the Pearl, and an addition to Rivercenter Mall added hundreds of millions of dollars to SAISD’s tax base. From 2016 to 2020, the tax base increased by an average of 9 percent annually.

This growth allowed SAISD to consider the historic 2020 bond package and pledge to voters that it wouldn’t bring a tax rate increase. However, voters might be confused when they reach the end of their ballots and find the language “THIS IS A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE” next to the SAISD propositions.

A new State requirement mandates this language be included with any school bond questions – even when the property tax rate isn’t expected to increase. Other billion-dollar bond packages passed in previous years haven’t had to contend with this issue. SAISD will be one of the first to face this challenge.

“We’re going to have to battle that language and it’s very difficult,” said Victoria Moreno-Herrera, 2020 bond committee co-chair. “I feel like it is our biggest hurdle to jump.”

Moreno-Herrera and other district officials believe communication is the best tool to overcome the potential confusion. They’ve held dozens of community meetings throughout the district in a bid to convince voters they should cast a ballot when early voting starts on Oct. 13. They argue that the result of the election likely will determine the future of the city’s urban school district for years to come.

What’s on the bond?

Texas law requires SAISD to split the bond package into two propositions. The first, worth $1.21 billion, contains funding for renovations at 21 campuses with main buildings that haven’t been fully renovated in decades. It also would provide the funding to finish out renovation work at 15 campuses that had been received partial renovations under previous bonds.

Money allocated per campus varies greatly. If voters approve the bond work, the most costly projects would take place at the Fox Tech campus to augment 2016 bond work, at Young Women’s Leadership Academy to overhaul the historic facilities, at M. L. King Academy to overhaul or replace classrooms, and at Rhodes Middle School for a large scale renovation. The district posted plans on its website for each individual campus renovation.

The majority of campus projects come with price tags greater than $20 million. This makes sense, said Tracy Ginsburg, the executive director of the Texas Association of School Business Officers (TASBO).

“It’s more expensive to renovate an aging facility,” Ginsburg said. “It can be easier to build a new facility, it can be cheaper.”

Ginsburg, a former district chief financial officer, said the work of historic preservation often makes projects more costly and challenging to think through.

SAISD last built a brand new campus in the early 2000s. Unlike in districts that experienced tremendous growth in the recent years, it hasn’t been necessary for SAISD to construct new buildings with a lagging or sometimes declining enrollment, trustee Christina Martinez said.

“It is hard to tell a story about needing capital for bond and this kind of improvement when … you also can’t say that your schools are booming with enrollment and are growing and we have no where else to put students,” she said. “That has not been our story in SAISD for a very long time. … We have the oldest buildings in San Antonio and some of them are beautiful but we have to put that money into keeping them up.”

SAISD’s second proposition, worth $90 million, would upgrade the technology at all campuses, bringing high-speed connectivity and devices to students. Some of this bond money would refund the district for the money it spent to get students devices when distance learning first started as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Process to select projects

The 36 campuses were chosen for renovations after a lengthy process that began in 2018 when the district hired consultants to review the needs of each campus.

The consultants produced a lengthy list of projects, with a price tag of $2.5 billion. SAISD hopes to use this list as a master plan, with the goal of getting listed campuses passed over in the current bond proposal on a “path to renovation” by 2030, Martinez said.

District leaders handed this list to a bond committee that convened this year to prioritize what should be included in a 2020 bond package. The committee, made up of more than 20 volunteers from each of SAISD’s single member districts, met virtually during the pandemic. Members also went on tours of campuses in person and debated which schools had the most pressing needs.

For the most part, the committee agreed with district staff on priorities, with one exception. The committee advocated to add Smith Elementary to the 2020 bond after a memorable campus tour.

“I couldn’t get into the front building because I didn’t even know where the front entrance was,” Moreno-Herrera said. “There was termite damage in classrooms. There was no way for anybody with special needs to get into the building without having to climb stairs.

“[The committee later] learned that Smith was not part of the original scope and it was just an accident that we had gone to see that school. But it was such a need that the committee as a group decided that we needed to fight for the school.”

When the committee submitted its recommendations, including Smith, to the school board, trustees voted unanimously to call the bond.

Managing the projects

The size of the bond package isn’t without precedent statewide – Austin ISD voters gave the green light to a $1.05 billion bond in 2017, and in 2019 Cy-Fair ISD voters approved a $1.76 billion bond. This November, Dallas ISD voters will weigh in on a proposed $3.7 billion bond package. But in San Antonio, a bond proposal this large is without precedent and might be a hard concept for voters to grasp, especially during a an economic downturn.

The closest comparison voters have took place in 2017 when the City floated an $850 million municipal bond package. The next year, the area’s largest school district, Northside ISD, passed an $849 million package with funds for four new campuses and renovations to many more school buildings.

Even without experience managing such a large bond, SAISD leaders say they are confident they can manage the projects if voters approve the propositions.

The district will rely on a bond oversight committee that will hold the district accountable for responsible use of funds and time, Martinez said. It’s the same oversight the 2016 bond received, he noted, adding that the work from that bond likely will be finished in the summer of 2021.

Each of the 2016 projects also had a school-level committee involving parents and in some cases students.

“Every project has been on budget or below and on time,” Martinez said.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks about SAISD's 2018 accountability ratings.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The superintendent said the cost to manage the bond would be between 3 percent and 5 percent. Because of the bond’s large scope, it is more likely the management cost will fall lower within that range, he said.

Ginsburg, the TASBO leader, said 3 percent sounds like a reasonable estimate. Managing bonds often requires additional hires including construction or purchasing managers, she said.

For Martinez, the community’s vote will be a meaningful signal on trust in whether the district can handle all the projects or is deserving of the money.

“I see this not just as a ballot question. This is our community weighing in on how we are doing,” Martinez said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.