Was it the economy, ballot confusion or lack of trust in the Stephenville Independent School District board of trustees that led to the defeat of an estimated $34 million facilities improvement proposition on Nov. 2?
According to school board members who discussed the issue Monday, SISD voters are not afraid to voice their opinions of the proposition and its failure following the election.
Gary Sult said he received calls from community members who had voted against the issue and shared their reasoning just hours after the final ballots were tallied.
He said voters said they opposed the bond for a number of reasons, including lack of trust in the board, the dollar amount of contingency funds worked into the multi-million dollar renovation project and the ongoing economic crisis.
Superintendent Dr. Darrell Floyd suggested it might have been voting confusion that led to the letdown.
Whatever the reason, discussion showed that voters could be asked to weigh in on the issue again in as little as six months.
For many area voters, the current economy and the proposed property tax increase was the biggest problem, according to Sult.
He said some voters thought it was possibly the worst time to dip into taxpayers' pockets, while others said they still wouldn't vote to increase taxes in the best economic climate.
Floyd agreed that it could have been the economy, and presented information on 40 school districts within Texas that sought voter approval on bond packages ranging from a $1.5 million proposition presented by the Aquilla ISD to $515 million presented by San Antonio ISD. While Aquilla and San Antonio voters approved those propositions, Floyd said 47.37 percent of the elections that were approved represented a historic low in terms of bond elections held across the state at any given time.
Across the state, 18 of 40 districts' bond elections passed, which adds up to more than $1.738 billion in bond bucks.
The contingency funds
Just as the renovations and additions proposed for Chamberlin Elementary, Hook Elementary and Gilbert Intermediate came with a hefty price tag, a 10-percent escalation cost, which was included in the $34 million bond proposition, caused concerne for SISD voters, according to Sult.
He said some "naysayers" worried that the more than $2 million in contigency costs would not be needed to complete the construction projects and the money would be used for other improvements not affirmed at the polls. According to Sult, people were saying that the contingency money not used for the improvements at the campuses would most likely be spent for athletic improvements at Stephenville High School.
Lack of trust
"The trust issue concerns me," Sult said. "We have to somehow regain their trust."
Sult said the contingency fund question, coupled with the idea that poor maintenance and poor planning and the inability to prioritize prior construction projects left Stephenville schools in their current condition.
Sult said many community members have expressed outrage over the fact that the school board previously approved the construction of Lem Brock Field instead of working on the campuses that are in disrepair.
"People were not voting against what we wanted to do, there is something much bigger going on here," board member Doug McLemore said. "We didn't have the support of teachers. The faculty doesn't trust us. It is more than the bond."
Board member Ora Lee Leeth, a retired teacher, said the biggest surprise was the lack of teacher support, a fact that she attributed to the educators' opinions that they were not "made a part of the plan."
In canvassing the election returns, Floyd said the final tally showed that 4,765 ballots were cast in the bond election, with 47.81 percent or a total of 2,278 voters supporting the proposition.
While the naysayers were in the majority with 52.19 percent or 2,487 ballots cast against the measure, Floyd pointed out the fact that the race also marked 573 under votes, representing SISD voters who cast a ballot in other races but did not weigh in on the bond proposition.
Floyd noted that the bond was only defeated by 209 votes, and said it was not clear if the 573 under voters chose to not support or oppose the issue or if they never got a chance due to voting confusion.
Floyd said during early voting and through Election Day, he received calls from voters who said although they lived within the school district, they were not given an opportunity to vote on the bond. He said some voters claimed that after they chose to vote a straight party ticket, they were not given the option to vote on the bond.
Floyd said he believed the problem could have been that voters opting to vote a straight party ticket chose their respective parties and clicked the "cast ballot" option before turning to the final question, the bond issue.
But according to returns in the November 2008 presidential election, the proposition to allow the sale of beer and wine for off premise consumption also tallied a large number of under votes. According to 2008 returns, more than 1,300 voters chose not to speak their opinions on the wet/dry issue.
Where does SISD go from here?
While Floyd presented the board with information on two companies that conduct public opinion surveys, board members said they could not approve a $8,000-$13,000 survey in hopes of determining the reason the proposition failed.
The board also agreed that the campus improvements are needed and may reappear on the ballot as early as May.
According to Floyd, the board can still take advantage of the more than $6.5 million in interest-free Qualified School Construction Bonds if they vote to call the election again in May. The QSCB would add up to an estimated $300,000 per year savings over the three-year phase in period.
Board member Rusty Jergins said despite the fact that the issue failed, he believed the board simply needed to "regroup and forge ahead."
"I firmly believe that what we presented was in the best interest of our students and taxpayers," Jergins said, adding that they simply needed to ask the community what needs to be done differently and listen to comments returned from community members. "I agree with Gary (Sult) we have to restore that trust."
The board will hold the first re-planning meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 29, in the SISD administration building.