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In Latest Turning Point, Judge Declares Midland ISD's $569 Million Bond Failed

By Mitch Borden

Midland Independent School District’s $569 million bond initiative, which would have built two new high schools, has officially failed.

After nearly three months — filled with voter distrust, election results flipping multiple times, a hand recount, and an election challenge  — a judge has signed an order, filed late last week, declaring the bond failed.

The final results 11,826 against, 11,800 in favor.

The election saga entered its final chapter when, earlier this month, a room full of volunteers tallied over 800 votes — which had previously been uncounted.

Midland County officials first realized that hundreds of votes were missing during a hand recount in November. That night, the county's recount flipped the results of the election by a slim margin. According to the new count — which didn't include hundreds of votes — the bond had passed.

Trey Trainor, an elections attorney involved in the contest filed against the bond proposal after the November, was there monitoring the proceedings.

“It’s important that when people do participate in the process that the rules are followed and that’s the problem that you have here is that there were rules that weren’t followed," Trainor said at the time.

Weeks after the recount, a county staff member stumbled upon a ballot box filled with the missing votes. No one had noticed it.

Once all the missing ballots were hand-counted this month, the parties engaged in the election agreed the latest results aligned with the original machine count from Election Night. For weeks, there were concerns surrounding the recently installed voting machines and whether they were the source of the 800-plus vote discrepancy in the election.

Even though the county's new voting system is accurate, there are still problems to address, according to Midland county's lawyer Russell Malm.

“Better training was needed. Better procedures," said Malm, who thinks it will take time to rebuild voter trust in the election process. "Some better chain of custody forms. I think using different types of boxes was a problem.”

During the election, the county used two types of ballot boxes, which is one of the reasons the elections office misplaced the ballot box filled with 836 votes. Malm said many of these problems have been or are in the process of being remedied.

Both pro and anti bond advocates wouldn't say they completely trust Midland elections now, but many do take comfort in the fact that newly installed voting machines didn’t cause the problem.

Christine Foreman — who led the charge for the bond with the political action committee We Choose Our Future — said even though the bond failed, Midland still needs new schools to address dramatic overcrowding, which is seen throughout the Permian Basin.

“We know that the need is there. We know that the capacity needs for our community are there," said Foreman. "What this means is just getting a group together and coming to the same table and coming up with a bond that more of the community can come around and support.”

Problems with district's aging schools were on display during a recent lockdown at Midland High School, when police had received reports of a student carrying a gun on campus. But some classrooms at the 71-year-old campus were unable to be contacted by officials due to an old and malfunctioning intercom system. Part of the failed bond would have gone toward improving communication and security systems across Midland ISD schools; Midland High School would have been torn down and replaced.

Foreman wishes the bond election wasn’t the test case for so many things to have gone wrong. But she said the whole ordeal has drawn people together and she hopes the process ensures the integrity of future elections.

Although the $569 million bond has failed, Foreman said the remainder of the funds raised by her PAC will now go toward future Midland ISD bond initiatives. The group raised over a quarter-million dollars, but We Choose Our Future is still figuring out what the remaining costs from this election are — so it could not give an exact figure of how much of its money is left.

The group Better Bond for Midland, which opposed the bond, has declined to reveal how the remainder of its funds will be used in the future.

"We plan on continuing our discussions with MISD regarding a better bond," said Hodges in a text message. "We don't plan on opposing a bond [in the future]. We are focused on helping bring a bond that is found in favor by a majority of the community."

Now that the dust has settled on the 2019 bond election, it's clear that Midland ISD, We Choose Our Future and Better Bond For Midland are willing to work together to figure how to craft a bond package all three groups would support.

But how these opposing sides accomplish this won't be answered until the school district holds its next bond election.

Read the order declaring the bond failed below:

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.