WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — Six months after the Wichita Falls Independent School District celebrated the passage of a bond election for new high schools, it’s back to the ballot box for another bond referendum to build sports and band facilities that will be attached to the new high schools, approved by voters in November.
The west high school will be located on the north side of Highway 82 near FM 369. The east high school is off U.S. 287 and Windthorst Road, which is owned by Legacy Park.
The state-of-the-art facilities are expected to be completed by the Fall of 2024, but will there be facilities for athletes and fine arts students on-site?
That is what WFISD voters will decide on May 1.
“It’s time to turn a page.”
Members of the For Better Schools Political Action Committee are hoping to spread the support for this bond. They believe it’s common sense to finish what voters started in November.
“We want to take it a step up and see our community continue to produce young people that win at life,” Marty McBride said.
The just over $13.5 million bond will look to add to the brand-new buildings already voted in by the people.
The new facilities would include eight lighted tennis courts with seating for 100, two synthetic grass fields for baseball and softball with bleachers for 150 each, eight lanes of batting cages, four each, along with an eight land track and a turf infield for field events that will have seating for 750, plus press boxes, tickets, concession, and restrooms.
“Whether it’s band and drill team or our athletic teams using those facilities, you win on the field and in extracurricular activities, then you’re going to win in the classroom,” McBride said.
But if the bond fails on May 1, WFISD officials said students from the new schools will be bused around town to different locations for extra circular activities. Bussing students will also cause district expenses to go up.
“Whether it’s before school or after school, it’ll affect the kids in different ways,” Melissa Lygren said. “It costs time for the students and it’ll cost the district money.”
Lygren, a WFISD parent, also knows first hand the struggles it would cause for band members.
“They move that equipment every day from the band hall to the field, so for them to practice at another facility, you’re talking about a large process,” Lygren said. “Larger instruments like the percussion, the marimbas, the bass drums, the sound equipment, the flags, all of that has to be transported with the students.”
That’s why Lygren and fellow WFISD bond supporter Marty McBride both agree the voters need to complete this program.
McBride said this project will benefit Wichita Falls for decades to come.
“I played athletics,” McBride said. “My children were in fine arts and athletics. I was in fine arts. My wife was in fine arts growing up. We had good teachers and good coaches, good facilities, but those facilities now need to be updated. It’s just about creating a culture of excellence and everybody wins when we have that in both of our high schools.”
Diehard Rider Raiders fans like McBride, he believes people will accept the upcoming fandom changes hesitantly, but will eagerly accept the tax increase for what he thinks will create a better future for the students of the new schools.
“It’s time to turn the page and it’s time to put all of that behind us,” McBride said. “It’s time to create young people that win at life.”
What will the bond cost you?
This measure for the sports and fine arts facilities comes with a 1.5 cent tax increase. The November bond brought a tax hike of 30.5 cents per $100 property value for taxpayers, bringing the total tax impact to 32 cents per $100 of property valuation.
Both bonds together would bring a $320 hike annually for a home valued at $100,000.
School district taxes are frozen for residents who are 65 and older and have filed for an Over 65 Homestead Exemption. Homestead exemptions are also available for individuals with disabilities and qualifying veterans/surviving spouses.
Unlike when this proposal was on the November ballot, this time around, the school district said it will take $4 million out of its rainy day fund to help bring the athletic faculties up to the competition level.
If the bond passes, that will happen over three years.
“It’s more debt. It’s more taxes.”
Vote No Advocate Ed Stein has seen it all before.
“No voters voted no and here we are six months later and it’s deja vu,” Stein said.
A small victory for the vote no side in November was the failure of Proposition B — an extra $13.582 millions for sports and band facilities — that failed by a 1,381 vote margin, which is over four times as many votes clear than Pro A, the building of new high schools, which passed by 322 votes.
But now that the measure is back on the ballot for the May election, the fight for Stein and other No supporters continues. It’s a message Stein said resonates with many in the community they’ve gone out and spoke with.
For Stein, he believes continuing to raise the tax impact, which is about an additional $11.25 annual on a $100,000 home, will have negative impacts on everyone in Wichita Falls for years to come. Considering Wichita County’s tax rate on that same $100,000 home is 1.94 percent with Smith County, anchored by Tyler, who no-voters compare Wichita County to based on population, sits at 1.37 percent, based on calculations done by financial technology company SmartAsset.
“They struggle with their finances,” Stein said. “They hold two jobs. They’ve got kids. They want to do things that are fun to do but at the same time, they have to put food on the table. They’ve got to put clothes on their kids. They’ve got to put a roof over their head.”
Population growth is another glaring issue for the Vote No advocates with Wichita Falls not seeing much growth in the last 20 years with around 105,000 people. Compared again to Tyler — a city with a population of 109,000, which has grown more than 25,000 people in the same time frame.
However, Stein wanted to make clear that no voters against the WFISD or against new facilities. He said they are just concerned citizens.
“We all want good schools and we all want good things for our city, but this $13.5 million bond is a good example of an expenditure that could have been done privately,” Stein said.
And that is Stein’s big question: Was there an attempt to raise this privately? Is there someone currently in the WFISD that would head up the project?
“Get somebody on your staff and train them how to contact donors and ask for money,” Stein said. “I bet you could raise this money privately, but instead what you’re doing is reaching into people’s pocketbooks and wallets again for some money and people are tired of it.”
Kuhrt: Putting a lot to chance through private donors
In a one-on-one interview, WFISD Superintendent Mike Kuhrt explained why the school district believes private funds aren’t the way to go.
“The longer we go in this process, the more expensive they become,” Kuhrt said. “Every year there’s two to three, five, six percent inflation. It just depends and so asking people privately to raise those funds is a big ask I think, for this community. And raising funds this year when there are so many other needs in our community, I just don’t think would be wise for us to do.”
Kuhrt wants to remind voters that what the school district is proposing in this bond is part of the WFISD’s Common Core curriculum.
“In other words, we teach a core curriculum in schools that is required,” Kuhrt said. “In other words, we’re required to have PE. We’re required to offer fine arts and things like that and these fields supplement that. In other words, the band has somewhere to practice if they have a football field, a striped football field. P.E. has somewhere to go when they go outside and they’re not in the gym. So these are required facilities as part of a comprehensive high school. So asking individual donors in our community, I think would be would probably be the wrong way to go.”
WFISD’s top leader also admitted that the school district could’ve done a better job in November explaining the need for these facilities in November.
“We all know that whenever you build a comprehensive high school in the state of Texas, you have practice fields that go with them, not recreational facilities,” Kuhrt said “We don’t call them recreational facilities. When I think recreational facilities, I think about a YMCA or I think about a park. And so I think whenever people saw recreational facilities, they were confused. I don’t think maybe we got the word out well enough for people to understand where we were coming from.”
And when it comes to taxes, Kuhrt said the tax hike might end up being cheaper than presented.
“With the way things are and the values that we have right now, chances are when everything’s said and done, it won’t be one point five cents,” Kuhrt said. “But we have to advertise it that way. That’s required ballot language. But with the values that we have right now and the values we saw from last year, it’s probably not going to be that high. But right now, that’s where we have to go with.”
If the bond passes, what’s next?
Now that ground is broken on the two new high schools that will be the centerpiece of Wichita Falls, WFISD has a lot on its plate in the coming years in hopes of bringing the school district into the 21st century.
“These are going to be the most modern facilities we have in Wichita Falls and probably in North Texas,” Kuhrt said.
These new high schools are nameless for now. The school district has already begun the naming process with the WFISD School Naming Committee, comprised of 40 people who are students, staff members, parents, and community members.
Discussion of school names will begin in May. According to a timeline provided by the WFISD, the school board will receive a report with the top five names on June 21. The school board is slated to vote on a name in July.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of local people or local places or whatever it is — but we have a an actual policy that we follow when naming schools in Wichita Falls so yeah, a lot of history involved I’m sure, and history lessons in this process,” Kuhrt said.
Once the new high schools are complete, the next phase of the Long-Range Facility Plan calls for Rider and Hirschi to be repurposed as middle schools.
When that happens, the school district will retire Jefferson Elementary and Wichita Falls High School. Then, the WFISD will do small move-in renovations to Hirschi and Rider.
McNiel students will move to Rider and Kirby students will move into Hirschi. McNiel would then be kept open but as an elementary school.
“Jefferson students and staff will move into McNiel along with overflow from West and Fowler because that’s where we’re really crowded right now just because of all of the growth that’s happening on the southwest side of town,” Kuhrt told KFDX in November.
This is all part of the district’s 30-year plan to touch every building in the district to either renovate it, add onto it or retire it. Future bonds would be dependent upon the needs fo the district at the time, but there were tentative plans in place in November for a bond in 2027 and 2035.
The 2027 bond package includes major renovations to Hirschi and Rider because Kuhrt said those facilities have to last about 30 more years in their new roles. Barwise would also get renovations.
The future bond would also feature additions and renovations to Crockett, Zundy, Burgess, Gaynes, Scotland Park, Booker T. Washington, and Lamar as well as the retirement of some of the district’s oldest buildings.
“The long-range plan and the work that would happen in 2027 and 2035 would not include a cost increase to the taxpayers, ” WFISD school board member Elizabeth Yeager told KFDX in November. “That would be a zero cost bond. We would still have to go to the voters and ask for their approval to maintain the 32 cent increase we are proposing in November, but the work that we’ve planned out over the next 30 years could be done with that same tax rate.”
That potential 2035 bond would include additions and renovations on schools on the south side of town. The school board is also expected to consider options of selling retired buildings to be repurposed as apartments, moving administration offices, or keeping it for students to use temporality while other construction projects are being done.
How to vote in the 2021 WFISD bond election
Early voting for the bond begins Monday, April 19, and ends Tuesday, April 27. The two locations for early voting are The Education Center and Sikes Senter Mall.
The Education Center is located at 1104 Broad Street. It will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Sikes Senter Mall is located at 3111 Midwestern Parkway. It will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Election Day is May 1.
“Get Schooled WFISD Bond” was produced by Brittney Cottingham and anchored by Zach Verdea on Monday, April 19.