“We don’t legally have to do that.” Gee, I hate that response. There are reasons we have laws that make us do something. Usually these reasons include an abuse of power, a lack of transparency or flat out deceitfulness. Oh, and worse of all, when we take choices away from the taxpayer or voter. There are many examples. A daily blog for each one would fill most of my calendar year. But let’s talk about one.
For many years, cities and counties were allowed to choose how the ballot was fashioned for a bond election. Let’s think this through. If I were a city council or staff member and had some controversial items I wanted to see passed, what could I do? The logical and most honest way to be fair with the taxpayers is to separate the choices on the ballot. Almost never are bond ballot items given the same weight. Streets and Drainage are often top priorities. And for a good reason. They are used by everybody daily and create a hardship when they fall into disrepair.
But how about a library? I would give it a high priority, but would you? A new city hall? We might be split more evenly on that one, although I personally would push hard for the important image of the building that houses the seat of government and the public forum. Many would disagree and be perfectly happy in an ugly two story bank building that you can stand in front of and possibly miss. If we went down the list, there would be certain items that we might really bicker over. Something big and expensive used infrequently might be tough to get passed.
So, would a city place 4-8 separate items on the ballot and let the voter choose? Or would the city council lump the controversial items with sure-thing items and put the voters in an All-or-None situation?
Ballot Bundling used to be legally possible for cities to do in Texas. But then laws got changed to force a city to allow the voters to see the choices, make the choices and for the city to live with the outcome. So, Streets & Drainage are separated from Parks & Recreation. And even Parks & Recreation might be split so the voter can decide. A Natatorium would surely be separated.
When you think about it, while now a law, most citizens and city officials they elect would think of it as the insult of the grandest order if they were placed in an All-or-None situation. In other words, abuse came first, then a law, and now it would be considered an egregious act to force a voter into a corner and demand a ransom.
Now Comes McKinney ISD.
MISD is days away from calling a $200+ million bond election. It contains an expensive $50+ million football stadium. The remainder has to do with classrooms and other facilities that, on the surface, sound logical and needed. If anyone has been preaching to take care of aging infrastructure longer than I have, please step forward.
Silly ole me made the assumption the football stadium would be a separate ballot item.
Then a colleague told me that MISD was going to bundle the stadium with the core infrastructure items. I quickly corrected them that it would be illegal for a ballot to be designed that way. I was then told school districts could get away Ballot Bundling. As I am prone to do, I checked with some professionals and got put in my place. ISDs can do this – legally – and MISD plans to do so in just a couple of days.
I am stunned! While anticipating that the bastions in search of truth, our educational institutions, are going to pop the “it’s legal” over the net, I’m ready for slam it back. This is the egregious abuse of power and deceitfulness and voter extortion that got the cities in trouble years back. How is it that ISDs can get away with this nonsense? Better lobbyist?
Whoa, Baby! Now you have my full attention. But as I get into this deal, I get more alarmed. Most of the people in McKinney ISD had not heard of these plans for a football stadium until June 2015 when a huge sign appeared in a field at a prominent location just off the Sam Rayburn Tollway. It’s prime commercial property to me, but that’s another issue. In McKinney we have two zoning designations: 1) Residential and 2) Commercial About To Be Rezoned to Residential.
There were several news stories at the time, most of them quoting school officials saying the football stadium conversation was just getting started.
So I go to the property rolls and learn that there are three large parcels of land that make up the stadium site. Two were bought in September 2011 and one in 2015. Sounds to me that the conversation started some time ago. Then I find a high-level sketch of the site and a rough cost estimate by an architectural firm working for the ISD. They may be working on other things, but they have been paid $2.3 million with the first payments on August 22, 2014. By the time the sign had been planted in the field, MISD had spent $1.277 million on them. Okay, this is getting a little more irritating to me.
No Tax Rate Increase???
But there is a bigger issue here. I am hearing that the stadium can be built without raising the property taxes. Now this is both heartbreaking and maddening at the same time. I was part of the group who voted for a 13-cent tax rate increase in 2013. The proposition passed but my little circle of friends thought I was crazy. However, I did my own number crunching back then (of course I did!).
Fortunately, I wrote an email to a colleague back at that time explaining my logic. In the email I also indicated that, according to my analysis, the MISD was asking for 3-4 cents more than they needed. I was actually okay with that. In my mind, a huge increase means you better not come back to the taxpayer for quite some time.
I also gave weight to my decision when I watched the video of the school superintendent at that time talking about how the MISD had taken so many steps to cut here and there before having to ask for the voters to fill the gap left by the mean ole state legislators.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Dang! We have made a quick recovery. Three years after needing 13-cents, MISD can miraculously build a $50+ football stadium without raising taxes. Somehow I don’t hear the ISD explaining the converse: if we don’t build a new football stadium, we can cut the taxes by …
So what do we have now? Apparently a $50+ million stadium that to my knowledge was presented at the outset as a Cadillac model. Did the MISD board get a chance to see Chevy alternative? And not only do we get sold the Cadillac, but it may be bundled with the HVAC to keep our “keeds” warm or cool or to keep the roof from leaking on their heads. Take it or leave it!
Is The MISD Board on Planet Earth?
I tried to go online to see what I could learn about the MISD Board meetings. I can find agendas, but no minutes although the button says there are minutes. I tried to watch a video of a meeting. I can only find two video and neither of them had the audio working. I tried to look at check registers, and they are in PDF format and listed in an order that must have come from a random number generator.
Does the Board ask questions or rubber stamp everything? Do any of them have any kind of business sense? I would like to know if any of them have even looked at the budget and audited financial statements? Or the check registers?
As an aside, nobody seems to have taught the MISD B0ard and Administration about timing and perception. Allen ISD’s football stadium has nothing to do with this MISD decision. Or does it? The entire world gasped at the cost of the Allen ISD stadium ($60 million for 18,000 seats) as well as the problems they had. The construction company fixed the problem, we read, and the AISD was not out more money.
However, the construction company is McKinney-based and has built almost every school building in McKinney over the years. Their school buildings seem to enjoy a great reputation. MISD has paid them $138,938,096 since FY 2008, the largest cash outflow other than personnel costs and wire transfers for bond payments. And that doesn’t mean they are even going to bid on this proposed stadium nor does it mean MISD would select them. However, add a perception issue to everything else, and you just have to ask yourself what is the MISD Board thinking?
Oh my, I get the sense that the MISD is another entity that labels themselves as transparent. If you are smart enough to dig through their information and ask a lot of questions. And I mean a ton of questions! LFM