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December 30, 2013

Top 10 Stories of 2013, No. 2: Huntsville school bond fails

HUNTSVILLE — Some people were in shock. Some were relieved. Both sides of the issue fought passionately for what they thought was best for the future of Huntsville ISD's students.

The HISD bond election that proposed $65.5 million in facility upgrades and a tax increase was voted down in May and ended months of bitter campaigning.

The district’s school bond failed with 62.6 percent of the total vote in Walker County, with 2,726 voting against the measure and 1,630 voting for it.

HISD Superintendent Dr. Steve Johnson called it “a sad day for the children of Huntsville” after the votes came in at the Hawkins Administration Building.

“It’s a sad day, but there will be another day,  Johnson said. “We can vote again. We’ll regroup. We’ll work with our trustees, get their direction and guidance on which direction we’ll go from here.

“I just want to thank everyone that’s worked on it so hard to try and make it a positive thing for the children in our community. So I’m saddened and I’ll leave it at that.”

The bond package included a new $50 million middle school, baseball and softball complexes across from Huntsville High School for $2.6 million, an agriculture center for $2.1 million, and a host of other facility upgrades to Huntsville schools.

A new middle school would have allowed the district to realign its feeder pattern system by eliminating two elementary campuses of older structures (Gibbs Pre≠K Center and Scott Johnson Elementary), while expanding the middle school in to a sixth≠eighth grade campus.

Huntsville athletic director Marcus Evans said the department will make the most of the facilities available. But the concern, he said, is with Huntsville schools as a whole.

“The vast majority of this bond was really directed at the academic potential of the kids through the future years,” Evans said. “The new middle school, the renovation of the campuses, the realignment of all the grade levels, all of that was with the intent of future academic benefit to our kids.

Sixty percent of the 2,621 early votes opposed the bond.  Of the 17 Walker County precincts that participated in the election, only Pcts. 201 and 205 favored the HISD bond proposal. The district had success with the highest voter turnout in Precinct 205, Elkins Lake, which supported the bond 463 to 426. The lowest voter turnout was in Pct. 203 in which eight of the nine total ballots were cast against the bond.

Local real estate agent Donna Pinon, who helped direct the  “It’s OK to vote no” campaign, said the group was pleased with the outcome but also is concerned about Huntsville schools.

“We felt like our schools needed something but not this,” Pinon said. “What I think most people would like to see is an open and honest dialogue on how to go about fixing the schools that involves a broader segment of the community. Certainly we’re pleased with this outcome, because throwing more money at a problem doesn’t fix the problem.”

When the opposition group first began its crusade, Pinon said, support for the bond was strong.

That did not turn out to be the case, polls showed.

“I got a lot of people who were calling me who had never done anything political that I knew of, saying they called their neighbors and told them to go vote no,” Pinon said. “So I was really surprised at how many people got involved in this.

“I felt like the tide had really turned about a week and a half ago. When we first started this, I really felt like it was going to pass.

Since making Huntsville school facility tours available to the public earlier this winter, district administrators and board trustees have mapped out four consecutive Saturday tour dates in January and February 2014.

“We want to really open it up and get the citizens involved,” Johnson said in November. “We want them to help us recommend a document to the trustees that the public will accept. In the last bond, there were citizens who had issues with not feeling included in the process. We d like to hear from all of them.

HISD will conduct a staff survey in early January. At the regularly scheduled board meeting Jan. 16, bond committee members will be finalized.

All four tour dates are scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon, with the first beginning Jan. 11 and followed by the next three Saturdays.

The tour sites will be Huntsville High School, Mance Park Middle School, Scott Johnson Elementary and Gibbs Pre-K Center.

A public forum was held Dec. 9 and Mance Park for citizens to address facility needs identified by HISD more than a year ago.

“We’re at the point where we need to see what we can do, board member Sam Moak said at the forum. “The school district needs help. We’ve got old facilities and we’ve got to do something.

“But we’re in a unique community where we may only be able to do what we can afford to do. We need you to help tell us, what are your priorities? Our kids certainly deserve more and in a perfect world, we would do it all.”

District officials say there is not enough space at Mance Park for student group work, an outdated cafeteria and kitchen facility from the 1960s that makes it difficult to serve students, while athletic locker rooms and the band hall are also in poor condition.

Most of the Gibbs campus being used was built in 1959. Scott Johnson Elementary was built in 1962 and hasn’t seen renovations since 1985. Neither campus, according to district administrators is cost effective from an operations standpoint.

“The current condition of our facilities and identified needs is obviously a school district concern, but a community one as well,” Duncan said in a press release. “We request your help in sharing this awareness campaign of sorts to inform the citizens that the district encourages everyone to participate by completing our survey.”

Another community forum is scheduled Jan. 13 at Scott Johnson Elementary.

HISD will conduct a staff survey in early January. At the regularly scheduled board meeting Jan. 16, bond committee members will be finalized.

The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for Jan. 23 at Huntsville High School, when the district will share the needs identified by last year s planning committee, review the community survey and set a timeframe for future work.

They will consider bond options at the second meeting, Feb. 3 at Gibbs Pre≠K Center. A third meeting is scheduled for Feb. 10 at Huntsville Intermediate School, where the committee plans to formulate a recommendation to the Board of Trustees.

The board will host a workshop at the Hawkins Administration Building on Feb. 17. An election could be called as early as Feb. 20, but possibly Feb. 25.

Brandon Scott contributed to this report.

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