HISD bond plan includes $150 million for small, half-empty schools

Twenty years ago, kids crowded the halls of Houston ISD’s Attucks and Cullen middle schools, historic campuses located two miles apart on the city’s South Side.

Since then, hundreds of families have fled the area or transferred their children to charter schools, leaving Attucks and Cullen half-empty with just 450 and 300 students, respectively. Enrollment losses have made neighboring schools prime candidates for consolidation, a painful cost-saving measure that involves closing or consolidating campuses.

But after years of talk about reducing the number of HISD schools, a prospect floated by recent HISD superintendents and a state-led external review team, the district’s new leaders are walking the walk for now back. Rather than close either school, HISD Superintendent Mike Miles’ administration is proposing $40 million in upgrades to both campuses as part of a $4.4 billion bond proposal dollars that voters might consider in November.

The improvements are part of Miles’ ambitious — but potentially wasteful — plan to invest millions of dollars in small and underutilized schools, in an effort to attract families to once-proud campuses.

A Houston Landing analysis of the bond plan, which district officials fully disclosed last week, shows the district proposes to spend more than $150 million on 16 campuses that meet the following two criteria:

  • A primary school with fewer than 300 students or a middle school with fewer than 500 students.
  • A current utilization rate, defined as the number of students enrolled divided by the number of students the building can accommodate, less than 50%.

Under the plan, HISD would move seven other small campuses into the same building as an existing school, with the two schools operating largely separately from each other. Those campuses were not included in the Landing’s analysis of the roughly $150 million in spending.

In an interview, Miles said he believes the improvements, combined with the district’s overhaul, will help reverse declining enrollment that has hurt the district’s finances and the image of some campuses. HISD’s enrollment has fallen from 216,100 to 184,100 over the past seven years, largely due to fewer families residing in the district and the rapid expansion of charter schools.

Miles, who was named head of HISD in June 2023 as part of state sanctions against the district, said he was “very careful” not to spend money on schools that would be closed later. Investments in schools with low enrollment and attendance address important health and safety issues, such as problems with aeration systems and water quality.

“We just haven’t done the right thing by these schools for many, many years,” Miles said. “And so we’re going to blame them, close their schools, because we didn’t help them become a great school, (and) bring back the kids that they’re losing?”

Worth the price?

Still, Miles’ plan risks spending money on a problem it can’t permanently solve. There is no guarantee that the improvements will bring families back to HISD, especially given the unpopularity of many of the changes it is making to the district. If HISD continues to bleed its students, the district could end up with dozens of renovated but still half-empty buildings.

By keeping schools with low enrollment rates open, HISD also leads to higher operating costs, reducing money spent on things like teacher salaries. The Texas Legislative Budget Council estimated in the late 2010s that HISD could save tens of millions of dollars each year if it closed dozens of low-enrollment schools.

The financial realities of running low-enrollment schools prompted HISD’s last two superintendents, Grenita Lathan and Millard House II, to raise the possibility of school closures, although district leaders ultimately sidestepped the question. Upon his arrival last year, Miles also said he planned to study the issue and come up with a list of schools that “need to be closed to provide a better education for students and also to be more financially healthy.” financial “.

At recent public meetings, several prominent community members involved in a bonding committee formed by the district raised questions about what the plans would mean for possible school closures. Eileen Hairel, a HISD parent, called the problem the “elephant in the room,” citing studies that show tens of thousands of unused student seats in the district.

“As we look at funding something on each of our 273 campuses, when are we going to have a conversation in the district about solving the huge gap between what we have and what our current enrollment actually looks like? » asked Hairel.

In response, HISD officials largely deflected, saying the district can make those decisions after the bond passes.

“We won’t start addressing these conversations now, but probably over the next year,” Deputy Chief of Operations Alishia Jolivette told Hairel. “Our current focus is to ensure that we take into account safety, security, health and the environment. »

The political vision

HISD’s $4.4 billion bond plan, which does not include any tax rate increases, would be the largest school bond in Texas history. Each school is expected to receive some level of investment under the plan, but the lion’s share would go to around 35 primary and secondary schools which would be rebuilt or extensively renovated.

It’s been more than a decade since HISD last asked voters to pass a bond measure — more than twice as long as is typical for large urban districts — largely because of unrest within leaders in recent years. District leaders and families agree that the long gap means many HISD campuses are now in dire need of repairs.

Despite the consensus, it is unclear whether the bond proposal will pass. A poll earlier this year by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that two-thirds of voters would support a bond with no increase in the tax rate. However, Miles’ critics are largely rallying against the bond, arguing that he and a state-appointed board cannot be trusted to manage Houston’s taxpayer dollars.

Parents of HISD students line up to share their concerns with HISD Superintendent Mike Miles during an HISD family engagement event at Marshall Middle School, Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Houston.Parents of HISD students line up to share their concerns with HISD Superintendent Mike Miles during an HISD family engagement event at Marshall Middle School, Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Houston.

By dedicating money to each school, rather than targeting specific school closures, HISD officials are taking a politically safer approach that could make it easier to pass a bond. School closures are highly controversial, particularly in the Black and Latino communities that are home to most of HISD’s low-enrollment schools.

HISD’s bond plans excited Maria Umanzor, the mother of children attending Fleming Middle School and Isaacs Elementary School. The two campuses would both operate in a reconstructed Fleming Middle if the bond were adopted.

Umanzor said her children learned in schools with periodic air conditioning outages and classrooms with broken windows. She thinks construction investments could help bring families back to under-enrolled schools.

“I think more attention may make more parents want to bring their kids there,” Umanzor said.

Journalist Angelica Perez contributed to this article.

Asher Lehrer-Small covers Houston ISD for the Landing. Contact him at [email protected].

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