The early voting period leading up to the May 5 Humble ISD school bond election has begun. The ballot reads as follows: “The issuance of $575,000,000 bonds for the construction, acquisition, and equipment of school buildings and the purchase of sites for school buildings, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.” Voters must decide whether they’re for the bond or against it.
In the two weeks left before the Saturday Election Day, it is an all-hands-on-deck push to get voters out to the polls. The district has provided detailed information about the bond on humbleisd.net. A pro-bond political action committee has been formed by a local interest group. While most voters associate political action committees with political candidates, it is legal for an interest group to organize a committee for the purposes of collecting money and providing financial support in favor of the bond. Political action committees can also organize against the bond; that happened in Katy ISD in a contentious and heated 2014 bond election that pitted parent against parent, but in this 2018 Humble ISD bond election, such an anti-bond committee does not exist.
The committee, entitled Humble ISD VOTE, was organized mainly by recruiting members who served on the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee from October to January to advise the school board on whether they should call for a bond, and if so, what the $575 million should cover. The political committee legally obtained the email addresses and contact information for the advisory committee members and began recruiting them in February.
A school bond is similar to a home mortgage in that, if it passes, it will allow Humble ISD to purchase land and build and renovate facilities by spreading those costs over the life (or a subset) of the bond. Passage of the May 5 bond would authorize the district to spend this money, but if the financial picture changes, or student growth in the district slows down, the board is not required to sell the bonds.
The political action committee treasurer Deborah Rose Miller said the committee is necessary because the “school district itself cannot encourage or tell folks how to vote; they can only educate voters about the bond.” Miller says the committee is needed to be able to organize and pay for the needed marketing materials to promote the bond. The committee is very supportive of the bond, stating that it has been 10 years since the last bond and that all the projects are necessary.
One project that did not make the bond cut was a costly $50 million natatorium. Committee member and former Humble ISD trustee Robert Scarfo said, “I had a gut feeling the natatorium would have been a hot issue. Building this majestic building in light of what the community just went through with Harvey might have defeated the whole bond.”
The Humble ISD VOTE committee held six meetings, the last occurring April 24 at Main Event. The committee has purchased Facebook advertising to run through Election Day and has initiated grass roots efforts to get people out to early voting locations. The committee is working their self-described circle of influence to garner support from groups like the Kingwood Area Republican Women, Kingwood Area Democrats, and BizCom. They’ve discussed rallying the troops at the upcoming chamber of commerce golf event. The committee also reports they have a targeted mailing list, and pro-bond literature will land in mailboxes immediately preceding Election Day and they’ll be at polls May 5 to hand out literature.
The committee has done extensive fundraising and reports that they have enough money to cover all expenses. Remaining funds will be donated to the Humble ISD Education Foundation. According to Texas law, the committee is required to disclose all donations in a final report due on or before July 15.
While there is no formal anti-bond committee, the for-and-against battle is playing out somewhat on social media. Plenty of area residents have taken to Facebook to express both support as well as concern about the bond. First, people are worried about the district’s mounting debt, particularly since the Texas legislature has not passed any meaningful Texas school finance reform in decades. As a result, even very efficient and financially responsible school districts like nearby Cypress-Fairbanks ISD are feeling the pinch. Large and small districts across the state have mounting deficits amounting to double digit millions of dollars. Districts are dipping into their reserve funds to pay for it all. Nearly all large districts in the Houston area are facing budget shortfalls. Some districts in Texas will be facing financial insolvency in a few short years, while others have passed tax increases to keep their schools going. Some have cut budgets by millions of dollars and have laid off teachers. Damages from Hurricane Harvey are expected to cost the state at least $2 billion, so many experts say there is simply not enough money to go around, and that the legislature won’t be passing any school finance reform anytime soon.
Other taxpayers question the legitimacy of bond items like third gymnasiums at each high school and artificial turf to replace grass, wondering if these items are “wants” instead of “needs.” Some are concerned about the true cost of the projects construction costs, debt service cost and operations and maintenance for each improvement.
Some on social media groups, like Humble ISD Parents, say their opposition voice is being squashed by groups like Humble ISD Supporters, which is pro-bond and counts several school board trustees as members. Several people complained that they had been blocked from the group after expressing concern about the bond.
Interestingly, in 2017, a Virginia district court judge ruled that politicians and elected officials were not allowed to block constituents. The case involved an elected official from Virginia’s Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
Still others are upset that the elections are being held in May rather than in November. Districts can choose either the May or November uniform election dates for school board. Earlier in the school year, trustee Keith Lapeze led the charge to have the election in May, citing a $50,000 cost savings that would “pay for a teacher’s salary.” Many accuse district officials of intentionally having it in May to game the election because voter turnout is typically very low. Scarfo and district CFO Mike Seale counter that argument, saying that having the election in May truly focuses voters on the bond issue without the distraction of other elections.
However, there are runoff elections also occurring in May along with the bond election. Harris County and Humble ISD usually share the cost of the election, but this year, Humble ISD must pay the total bill. The county has said that because of the run-off races, they do not have the capacity to support the bond election; Harris County will not provide equipment and staff as they normally would. Therefore, the election is costing $50,000 more for Humble ISD than originally anticipated. The district did budget $110,000 to run the election, but they anticipate actual costs to be slightly lower.
Early voting began April 23 and concludes May 1. Election Day is May 5. Visit humbleisd.net for polling locations and more information.