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Edinburg school board, citizens panel begin joint work on $150 million school construction bonds

Publication: Edinburg Politics
Published: 06/14/08

With the May 10 passage of two multi-million dollar school bond issues, Edinburg school board leaders and a citizens advisory group have begun meeting on a regular basis to make good on their promises to keep the public informed on the campus construction plans.

The bond election, which was overwhelmingly approved by Edinburg school district constituents, involved two propositions:

* Proposition 1 authorizes the school district to: build four elementary schools; build two middle schools; convert Harwell Middle School into a fourth high school; add one multi-purpose fine arts center to the each of the three existing high schools; construct additions/renovations at Brewster School; and buy land for the new schools. The total projected cost is $111,920,000.
* Proposition 2 authorizes the school district to refinance, at a lower interest rate, $37,675,000 of 1998 Lease Purchase Bonds, and convert them into Series 2008 voter authorized IFA supported bonds. IFA means Instructional Facilities Allotment (IFA), which is a state fund available to help qualified school districts such as Edinburg receive help in paying for construction of new campuses. IFA is distributed through grants, most of which go to districts with low property wealth.

Since the early May election, the school board, and through one of its committees, known as the Facilities Committee, has been working with a citizens advisory panel, whose members call themselves the Bond Oversight Committee, to provide a step-by-step accounting to the public on how the bond issues will be put into place.

“The purpose of the Facilities Committee is to have an opportunity to view, question, investigate, and clarify projects dealing with school facilities that will eventually go for consideration before the full school board,” explained school board trustee Carmen González, who serves as chairwoman of that panel.

In addition to González, trustee Robert Peña, Jr., and board secretary Ciro Treviño serve on the Facilities Committee.

Dr. Francisco Guajardo, Ph.D., and Bryant Morrison, both faculty members at the University of Texas-Pan American, have been the leaders for the Bond Oversight Committee, which is comprised of a handful of school district constituents who have volunteered their time and expertise to help shape how the school construction projects will take place.

On Tuesday, June 3, the two groups met during a public session, held in the Administration Building.

González said that meeting, and the joint sessions to come, will help both groups get a better handle on the challenges that will face the school board and its constituents.

“The more we meet, we are getting a full understanding that one of the first decisions we need to make is what approach will the Edinburg school board and district take to build the facilities in the bond issue,” she said.

In addition, the spirit of cooperation and openness is also designed to calm lingering fears among many school district residents, who recall a tumultuous episode in school district history that came about following the passage of a school construction bond issue in 1998.

“Going back to the last bond issue used (in 1998), it created a lot of over-cost and negative perceptions of how things were done,” González said. “The one major goal of the committee and board is to avoid that negativism. The board is trying to do things right, that we be transparent, that we involve as many citizens as possible.”

Soon after, public perception quickly soured when a multi-million dollar lawsuit was successfully filed by the school district to recover much of the financial damages incurred from fixing alleged structural problems at the Johnny Economedes High School, whose construction was funded as a result of the that bond election.

González said school board members this time were determined not to see a repeat of unpleasant history.

“There have been several meetings, including an official workshop (in late May) with the full board, to continue the dialogue regarding the direction the school district is going, and to keep each informed so the Bond Oversight Committee can also communicate with the community, to assure the people that the school board is keeping its promise to be transparent and open in every transaction involving the bond funds,” she said.

On Tuesday, June 10, Guajardo addressed the school board, saying that discussions between the Facilities Committee and the Bond Oversight Committee seem to be going well.

“My report to the community is that things are moving swiftly, I think,” Guajardo told the board, whose meeting is being broadcast on the school district’s television channel, KATS-TV, Time Warner Cable channel 17. “This kind of project, we cannot rush through it too fast, because it is too big, too much responsibility, we have to be thoughtful and cautious with our work.”

Guajardo noted that the Bond Oversight Committee has already made some suggestions on how they believe the construction projects can best be implemented.

“We know that the school district, the board, the Facilities Committee, and the administration have been looking at other options, such as bringing in somebody, and staffing the office of that somebody, who would be uniquely qualified to lead such an effort,” Guajardo said. “The Bond Oversight Committee is not completely convinced that is the most effective way to go, although we are certainly willing to listen to what that possibility would be like.”

He said the Bond Oversight Committee has encouraged the school board, the Facilities Committee, and the administration “to move on sending out a request for qualifications for a construction management firm. The school district has done its due diligence, and actually has a draft proposal already that will be reviewed by the Facilities Committee, the rest of the board, and the Bond Oversight Committee.”

Guajardo said the McAllen school district passed a similar school bond construction measure in 2005, and said the work there has proceeded smoothly – offering Edinburg a good example on how it should approach the management of the its own $111.9 million construction plans.

“We know, from having studied the issue during the last couple of months, that there is the ‘McAllen Model’,” Guajardo reported. “McAllen, as you know, passed a very large bond issue several years ago, and hired a construction management firm. With a construction management firm, McAllen, in the end, will be on time and on budget. So, that is a model that is actually desirable, and the Bond

Oversight Committee has urged the board and the administration to look very carefully at that model as a way to go.”

Regardless of the final decision on how to manage the construction projects, both the school district leadership and the citizens group pledge to get their respective messages to the people.

“The Bond Oversight Committee feels it has its own communications,” González said. “We, as the school district, will continue to communicate with our constituents in our own ways, but they feel that in addition to our efforts, they want to carry the message, independently, to the community.”

On June 10, Guajardo provided more insight into how the Bond Oversight Committee will inform the public.

“There will be other communications methods that we will be employing, such as a web page within the school district’s web site, and so that is in the process of development,” he said. “We also will be publishing a story in the next Educationally Speaking newsletter published by the school district, and we also will be having an ad in the local newspaper sometime soon.”

And if the two groups began to send out conflicting message?

“Hopefully that won’t happen,” González said. “I believe they are going to be as transparent as we are, and if that becomes a problem, I am sure we would address it.”

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