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In West Texas, schools hope skeptical voters will OK debt to upgrade crumbling, overcrowded buildings

Children in West Odessa line up to board their school bus before dawn on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Children in West Odessa line up to board their school bus before dawn on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023

WEST ODESSA — Every morning before sunrise, Margarita Soto walks her two grandkids to their nearest bus stop.

In a neighborhood with few street lights and sidewalks, she grips a small flashlight. A rare morning drizzle flickers in the deep dusk. As they carefully approached the four-way intersection, rows of humming cars appear.

They made it in time for the 6:40 a.m. pick-up.

Soto’s grandkids, Cameron and Lin, go to school in town, about a 7-minute drive from their stop in West Odessa, an unincorporated area of Ector County. It’s not an easy commute. The bus hits multiple other stops in an area 10 miles larger than the city of Odessa, extending a quick drive into a 35-minute, one-way commute.

Like many families on the same route, Soto isn’t holding out hope for the promise of a new middle school closer to home. Part of the upcoming bond election in Ector County, it sounds like a far-fetched dream.

“I haven’t heard much about it,” she said. “I don’t think it’ll happen.”

Margarita Soto, far right, barely visible in the pre-dawn darkness, walks to a West Odessa bus stop in the rain with her grandchildren Cameron and Lin Soto
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Margarita Soto, far right, barely visible in the pre-dawn darkness, walks to a West Odessa bus stop in the rain with her grandchildren Cameron and Lin Soto

But supporters of bond questions in both Ector and neighboring Midland counties — which will allow the public schools to borrow money to pay for new construction and repairs to existing buildings — say the region is ready to invest in its schools.

School districts in both Ector and Midland counties are asking their voters to take on a combined $1.9 billion in debt. State law requires all bond election ballot language to call it a tax increase. However, both school districts say they have no plans to increase their tax rate if voters approve the bond. In fact, the Midland school district plans to lower its tax rate, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram.

The districts, which serve a combined 61,500 students, have struggled to obtain voter approval to finance extensive repairs and new building. Voters have rejected such requests for at least a decade — an unsurprising outcome in a region known for being wary of taxation, government and investing in itself. In Midland, the 2019 bond lost by just 26 votes.

And opposition is mounting again, at least in Midland. A new nonprofit, Move Midland, is arguing that the school district hasn't earned the public's trust to ask for more debt. Another group, Midlanders for Educational Excellence, has raised a little over $5,000 to oppose the bond.

“Our main problem with the bond is not its total cost,” Rachel Walker, board president of Move Midland, at a debate Wednesday. “We recognize there are many changes that need to happen in the facilities and that those do come at a cost.”

Walker's group has said the district should use existing surplus to build a new elementary school and address other maintenance needs, then ask voters to approve more debt for a new high school in 2024.

And most importantly, Walker said at the debate, the district should focus on improving academics at its schools.

But the district has run out the clock on a piecemeal approach, said Josh Ham, who chairs Energize Midland Schools, a political committee campaigning in favor of the bond.

“That’s part of the reason this bond is the size it is. It’s because we have to now catch up across the district because we failed to do the incremental bonds along the way and we can’t do that anymore. We can’t do that to our children anymore."

The two counties are outliers based on recent elections. Other West Texas voters have approved upgrades and new construction. Andrews County, 35 miles north of Odessa, passed a $157 million bond proposal last year, allowing for upgrades to its infrastructure, including new technical education centers, athletic facilities and robust security protocols in schools. Fort Stockton voters, 100 miles south of Midland, approved a $100 million proposal, with many of its projects already underway.

Midland and Odessa civic leaders — including those in the dominant energy sector — say they need voter approval to upgrade schools, which are struggling to keep up with a booming population. Modern and safer schools, they say, are needed to continue to attract families to the oil fields.

Permian Strategic Partnership, an organization made up of 22 leading energy companies in the region, is raising awareness about the bond questions in both counties.

The partnership has hosted events featuring former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. It also launched a get-out-the-vote campaign that will deploy bilingual radio advertisements and advertisements in the local newspapers.

“Education is our No. 1 priority,” said Tracee Bentley, the partnership’s president, who said the organization would support the bond elections in both Midland and Odessa. Industry leaders in the energy sector want to see quality schools for workers settling in the Permian Basin, she said.

Nimitz Middle School 7th grade teacher’s aide Pricilla Martinez leads her class in an activity Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023 in Odessa. Martinez said that due to the increased amount of families moving to the Permian Basin, they sometimes teach 38 to 40 kids per class. “It’s been six weeks and I still don’t know all of their names … it's embarrassing to me,” Martinez said.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Nimitz Middle School 7th grade teacher’s aide Pricilla Martinez leads her class in an activity Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023 in Odessa. Martinez said that due to the increased amount of families moving to the Permian Basin, they sometimes teach 38 to 40 kids per class. “It’s been six weeks and I still don’t know all of their names … it's embarrassing to me,” Martinez said.

The propositions include sweeping maintenance repairs for all schools in Ector County, a new career and technical center that would help accommodate a 600-student waitlist, a facelift for Ratliff Stadium, and a career transition center for special needs students. Another proposition includes plans for a new middle school in West Odessa.

In Midland County, school district officials proposed building two new high schools and an elementary school, upgrades to security systems on every campus, and infrastructure repairs for all of the district’s schools, including athletics and spaces dedicated to arts instruction and performance.

“It’s time,” said Sara Moore, chair of a political action committee established to register voters and drive turnout at the polls. “The future is here. It’s now.”

Ector County educators and students have navigated the worsening conditions that have been ignored throughout the years.

Inside a seventh-grade classroom at Nimitz Middle School, cramped student desks sit next to each other. Pricilla Martinez, a teacher’s aide, has nowhere to sit but in a tight corner. More than 35 students compete for her attention while working on classwork. At one point, the classroom was so loud they had to split the class in half, sending one group of students to another room.

“The kids thanked me for putting them in a quieter classroom that day,” Martinez said. “It broke my heart.”

A cluster of portable classrooms at Nimitz Middle School on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023 in Odessa.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
A cluster of portable classrooms at Nimitz Middle School on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023 in Odessa.

To help with overcrowding, the district had installed 18 portable classrooms behind the brick and mortar school. But even those are now overrun. And they’re expensive to keep up, the district says.

In the pastel-colored hallways, blue lockers lined the school walls — not that there are enough for all the students.

At nearby Bonham Middle School, overcrowding isn’t an issue. But the building is out of compliance with disability rules, said Ardrayda Jeffrey, the vice-principal.

One elevator is defunct, and there is no ramp compliant with guidelines set by the American Disabilities Association. Half of the control board in the auditorium is non-responsive. And the school’s HVAC system doesn’t work uniformly. Certain parts of the school swelter while others are freezing. If the air conditioning is shot, the choir must cancel rehearsals because of the unbearable heat.

“The kid’s mentality matches the building,” Jeffrey said. “Students feel embarrassed. The years of dilapidation weigh on the kid’s self-esteem.”

Despite a renewed effort by the community to convince voters to approve upgrades, bond elections are a tricky endeavor for rural Texas school districts, said Chandra Villanueva, director of public policy at Every Texan, a progressive nonprofit that advocates for greater public investment in education.

Students at Bonham Middle School in Odessa walk between classes on Sept. 13, 2023.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Students at Bonham Middle School in Odessa walk between classes on Sept. 13, 2023.
Signs of an aging school are evident at Bonham Middle School in Odessa. A decaying ceiling and leaking air conditioner in a room used for storage.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
Signs of an aging school are evident at Bonham Middle School in Odessa. A decaying ceiling and leaking air conditioner in a room used for storage.

Wealthier counties like Travis and Harris, which passed bonds totaling billions last year, can shoulder these remarkable figures because higher property values give school districts leeway for new debt without major impacts on the local tax rate.

With a less populated tax base, rural districts must weather years of capital stagnancy and penny-pinching, or acquire debt.

“It really is an unlevel playing field between districts when it comes to funding facilities and other bond measures,” Villanueva said.

Explaining the inequity and need for updates is a difficult task, said Libby Cohen, senior director of advocacy at Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit that advocates for public education in the state.

“Trying to understand what’s happening in any policy area is a daunting task for an individual,” Cohen said. “It’s very easy for an individual to disengage.”

The Ector County school district has asked voters to take on new debt before. But the 8,000 voters — about 10% of eligible voters — who cast their ballot in the last bond election said no. Meanwhile, the district has used accounting tricks made possible by a 2019 law to pay for the most pressing maintenance issues.

The school board is out of options, it says.

In an effort to drum up greater public support, the school board asked 130 residents to draft the bond proposal. So far, there appears to be no official opposition to the bond in Ector County. However, there is no assurance the largely conservative voter base will OK the new debt — even if it doesn’t raise taxes, which the proposal will not.

“I believe we’ve tried to address the needs of our students in every way we can,” said Delma Abalos, vice president of the school board. “We can’t do everything, but we’re certainly going to try.”

A Bonham Middle School student walks to the next class on Sept. 13, 2023.
Eli Hartman
/
The Texas Tribune
A Bonham Middle School student walks to the next class on Sept. 13, 2023.

From the Texas Tribune