Bond issue about PG’s future

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Braxton Watkins helps lead the team onto the field for the second half in a district showdown with Gilmer.

Pleasant Grove’s best product is Pleasant Grove.

If PG homeowners – my wife and I included –  wish to ease their share of school taxes, it would be wise to do a lot of long-range planning and a little bit of salesmanship to help grow the tax roll. In a district comprised mainly of single-family homes, that starts with good schools.

This revelation came to me as I pored over numbers relevant to PG’s proposed $19.9 million bond issue. Early voting is open. Election day is Saturday, May 5.

Data from the school district’s budget, the Bowie Central Appraisal District, the Texas Education Agency, and The Texas Tribune’s education database shows that Pleasant Grove Schools fight three financial headwinds: debt, a lack of commercial property and below-average state and federal contributions.

Results are there

Still, taxpayers get their money’s worth. With less to spend per pupil – $9,266 last year vs. the state average of $12,264 – PG has one of the highest graduation rates in the state of 98.6 percent, nearly 10 points better than the state average, and zero dropouts.

SAT and ACT scores are significantly above average, as is participation in college-level, dual-credit courses at the high school, consistently a top-10 finisher in competition for the University Interscholastic League’s Lone Star Cup, awarded for excellence in both athletic and academic competition. The school’s performing and visual arts programs are nationally recognized and administrators say that nearly 90 percent of high school and middle school students are involved in extracurricular activities.

“Sure,” you’re thinking, “but they have a bunch of Stepford children.”

Not true.

The student body is more homogenous than many may believe. A third, 32.9 percent, of students are classified as being at-risk of dropping out, a TEA designation that weighs family income, academic progress, and disciplinary issues. Thirty-two percent are economically disadvantaged. Enrollment in career and technical programs is 27.4 percent, slightly greater than the state average.

Discipline is not a big issue at PG. During the football team’s 16-0 state championship run, for example, not a single player was lost to suspension. Seven players signed college athletic scholarships, but three times that number will attend college on academic scholarships. Four earned academic all-state honors.

Faculty pays, too

Clearly, Pleasant Grove schools are overperforming, and the faculty is a key reason. The average salary is $46,021 – $6,504 below the state average. Despite that, the average teacher has 13 years of experience, 30 percent more than the Texas average, and 44.2 percent have at least a master’s degree. That’s nearly double the state average.

This past year the school board gave teachers who dedicate their afternoons and weekends to extracurricular activities a $500 stipend. So, these dedicated educators could go somewhere else, go home at 3:30 every afternoon and still be $6,000 ahead. Think about that when you get your tax bill. A big chunk of PG’s financial struggle is born by a well-educated, highly motivated, underpaid faculty.

About that debt

Regardless, a non-debatable truth is that PG homeowners pay some of the highest tax bills around. That is a product of two factors, taxable value times tax rate. According to the appraisal district, the median home value in PG is about $184,000, second in the county only to Redlick ISD’s $201,000.

By comparison, Texarkana ISD’s tax rate of $1.425 per $100 is nearly identical to PG’s $1.44, but the median home value in TISD is $85,404, meaning the average residential school tax bill in PG is more than twice as high.

The average tax rate in Texas is $1.28 per $100, or 1.28 percent of taxable value. Looking over TEA’s aggregated data, it appears the plurality of school districts are allocating about $1.17 of that to maintenance and operations and another dime or so to debt service.

That is not the case in Pleasant Grove, which dedicates $0.35 to debt service and $1.09 toward running the schools. The reason is simple. PG is a relatively young school district that first opened a high school 34 years ago and has gradually added critical infrastructure since.

In the past two decades, PG has built a new intermediate school, new gyms, an auditorium, a new administration building, a new stadium, a new science lab, added classrooms, installed air conditioning, refinanced old debt at lower rates. The list is long.

In all, the district dedicates about $2.4 million a year to pay down $30.4 million in principle on seven bonds. Some of those will start to fall away in the next few years, and all will be paid by February 2032.

Now is the time to build

One’s natural inclination is to wait until more debt is paid off before acquiring new debt. If only that were an option. The district is gaining around 25 new students a year and the elementary school is out of room and too outdated to provide a 21st-century education, the needs of which were an important consideration of a blue-ribbon citizens advisory committee that studied these issues throughout the fall and winter

Have you driven by the place lately? Look at it with fresh eyes. How would you like to be a Realtor asked to show the schools to buyers weighing Pleasant Grove vs. Redlick or Redwater? Between inflation and rising interest rates, delay today will only add costs tomorrow.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

Who pays?

Of PGISD’s $962 million in taxable value, nearly 62 percent is single-family residences. On the south side of I-30, by contrast, TISD has a $2.1 billion tax roll, but only 33 percent is single-family. The mall, all those car lots, all the retail along I-30 are in TISD.

This year, Pleasant Grove is classified by TEA as property-poor, the result of a calculation so Byzantine that NASA mathematicians have been known to run off screaming and seek employment as fry cooks. The key number is $514,000, the quotient of a simple ratio: property wealth per student. That’s what TEA says it takes to support a “basic” education.

This year, the Bowie Central Appraisal District puts the value of PGISD’s tax roll at about $962 million. That, divided by the district’s average daily attendance of 2,121, nets an average of $454,000, so the state is going to kick in little to make up the difference. That is likely to continue because the rate of growth in students is outpacing growth in PG’s tax roll.

Finding more business to help pay for schools would seem a smart play, but adding commercial taxpayers is problematic in Pleasant Grove, where vast swathes of flood-prone grassland dominate the map. One doubts that PG residents want to see a factory if one could even be built in the Red River alluvial plain.

The district does include some superb economic engines which promise to foster residential growth, such as CHRISTUS St. Michael and Texas A&M Texarkana, but both are tax-exempt. The most obvious play might be to do what is already being done and to encourage retail and professional development along Richmond Road and the west side of Summerhill Road.

My wife and I call this area “the cocoon,” because of the terrific shopping, dining, and entertainment opportunities, plus the proximity of medical and business professionals. Building more high-quality homes in the school district will only encourage that retail and professional development to accelerate.

That will take time and it will come in cycles. Vacant acres still abound south of McKnight Road – the school district’s southern boundary – and I-30. That includes land purchased for the eventual relocation of Wadley Hospital.

The smart play

In the meantime, Superintendent Dr. Jason Smith and the school board have taken a tack to position the district to take advantage of the hand dealt it today while keeping an eye on tomorrow’s opportunities. Renovating the elementary school into a career and technical center has many advantages, not the least of which is preparing non-college bound students to thrive and weather the economic storms that batter every generation.

The district receives less than 2 percent of its funding from the federal government, but that will change. Expanded vocational offerings could pull in as much as $500,000 a year in new federal funds.

This effort fits hand-in-glove with the continuous growth in career programs being engineered by Texarkana College President James Henry Russell. In time, one can envision the schools synergizing their effort to include two-plus-two programs, which combine training in the last two years of high school with the first two years of college. Does a 20-year-old RN, BSN have a bright future?

(Full disclosure, I teach one class per semester at TC).

At some point, a new career center will be needed, but give Richmond Road time to develop, and a less debt-ridden school district might be able to sell that prime property at the intersection of Richmond and University not by the acre, but by the square foot.

So, yes, a new elementary school will slightly increase our school taxes, but my wife and I, soon to be empty nesters, still believe in the social contract. Somebody helped educate us and our children, so we don’t mind pitching in now. Plus, we’re practical: Good schools equal increased home equity, and a great quality of life is priceless.

 

 

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A veteran journalist and educator, Bill Owney is a 1980 graduate of the University of Florida. Writing awards include APME honors for investigative reporting, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Award for public service reporting and numerous awards for editorial, column and news writing. He served as publisher of the Atlanta Citizens Journal and Pittsburg Gazette when each paper won sweepstakes awards from the Texas Press and North and East Texas Press Associations. He spent 15 years as a public school teacher and is an adjunct professor of English at Texarkana College.