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January 13, 2014

Citizens voice opinions, ask questions about Huntsville ISD facility concerns at forum

HUNTSVILLE — There were mixed reactions from community members during Monday night’s forum held by the Huntsville Independent School District at Scott Johnson Elementary School.

HISD administrators and board members are trying to gauge the tenor of citizens regarding another possible school bond election in May, which would be a retry from last year’s $65.5 million package that was shot down by voters.

The forum at Scott Johnson was the second of its kind in as many months. This one prompted similar responses from the previous meeting, and even going back to the May 2013 election.

Bond supporters want the district to get rid of aging facilities, help the district operate more efficiently and boost Hornet pride and morale in the schools.

The so-called “naysayers” are still reluctant to take on more debt after both the Walker County Commissioners and Huntsville City Council raised taxes in the past two years, with some citizens still wary about the district’s priorities.

Nonetheless, HISD has facility needs that have been identified and are not going away.

“There were tax increases by other governmental agencies and we didn’t get to vote on those,” former HISD board member Kay Douglas said. “So I understand there were people who, since they got a chance to vote, decided to say no. I was frightened when I saw signs that said it’s OK to vote no because you’re not voting against this board, or the City Council or the commissioners. You’re voting no to kids.

“The longer it takes us to fix these (facilities), it’s the kids who will get hurt.”

Some opposed to the bond, or at least a few who voted against it last year, take exception to their votes equating to them being against children. Last year’s bond would have included a 17 to 19 cents tax increase with a bond rate estimated at four percent.

A bond package similar to last year’s would increase property taxes at the average appraised home value ($107,000, according to the Walker County Appraisal District) by less than $200 annually.

But citizens are mindful of the area’s economic situation, with very little taxable land due to multiple governmental agencies occupying the county and the national forest.

“You have to realize that we’re a tax poor district and we have to live within our means,” Chad Byrd said. “It’s not really a question of what do our children deserve. We all agree they deserve the best of everything. It’s a question of what we can realistically afford. I think we need clearly defined, realistic priorities. That’s the best way to start moving forward now.”

All of this is the type of feedback HISD has been looking for in recent months. Soon, as HISD Superintendent Steve Johnson said Monday night, the district and voters are going to have start looking ahead instead of backward to find a solution.

An online survey posted by HISD last month will close today at 5 p.m.

HISD spokeswoman Shannon Duncan said that as of Monday, there had been 462 responses to the survey. The link can be accessed at www.surveymonkey.com/s/hisdbondsurvey, or on the district’s website, Facebook and Twitter pages.

The Item participated in a campus tour of four Huntsville schools on Saturday.

There will be three more tours over the next three Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to noon. The district is providing a bus for citizens and there are also possible carpooling options from the HISD Hawkins Administration Building.

HISD hosted a community forum last month at Mance Park Middle School for citizen input. Around 80 people showed up Monday for the forum at Scott Johnson, which lasted roughly two hours.

The next school board meeting is scheduled Jan. 23 at 6:30 in the HHS auditorium, rather than this Thursday as the Item previously reported.

Duncan said there were scheduling conflicts for board members, which led to the rescheduling.

Also, the public is invited by the HISD Board of Trustees and administrators to participate as members at a committee meeting Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m., inside the high school auditorium.

Board members could call for a bond election as late as Feb. 25 if the election is held in May.

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Camp Good News will take place at Camp Allen in Navasota from June 8-13. It is free for girls and boys ages 10 to 15 who has an incarcerated parent. Camp director Ed Davis, a Huntsville native, is hoping to provide kids with an uplifting week of spiritual and physical activities.

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