McAllen ISD says most bond funds already being utilized

McALLEN — Nearly six months after a majority of city voters approved the school district’s tax ratification election, the McAllen Independent School District has already spent a large portion of the more than $7.8 million the election freed up.

All of the projects that have been funded or are in the process of being funded are in line with those the district’s board of trustees approved last June, with a third of funds going toward improving student and campus safety.

“We talked about what we wanted to do and tonight is to talk about what we’ve done,” McAllen ISD Superintendent Jose A. “Jay” Gonzalez said Monday during a town hall.

The TRE, which received 76 percent of the vote in September 2018, allowed the district to move 11.5 pennies of every $100 raised through the district’s tax rate from its Interest and Sinking Fund into its Maintenance and Operations Fund. The move will generate $7 million annually.

By summer 2019, McAllen ISD will have spent approximately $2.6 million on safety-related projects, including approximately $980,000 in hiring a police officer for each one of its 19 elementary schools, a recurring cost that must be budgeted annually. Another $1 million is going toward installing fencing along campus perimeters in addition to security lobbies in every school.

The goal of these projects, Gonzalez said, is to create “an environment that is controlled and where everything is secured — not just to (vehicle) traffic but to foot traffic,” and he emphasized that McAllen ISD is one of the safest districts in both the county and country.

TRE funds were also used to give raises to staff in October 2018, which amounted to a little more than $1.4 million. The one-time raise, the superintendent said, was equivalent to 2.9 percent of the median market pay for teachers in the Rio Grande Valley. McAllen ISD teachers with 20 years of experience are now ranked seventh locally in terms of competitiveness of pay, up from ninth before the raise. New teacher pay went up from seventh to sixth.

“It’s not where we want to be, but we added value to the system and it was only possible because you all supported us,” Gonzalez said.

Approximately 42 percent of the $7.8 million in TRE funds are being used to upgrade science labs at McAllen, Memorial and Rowe High Schools and Lamar Academy.

Gina Karam Millin, a district parent and school board candidate, raised concern during the town hall about the science labs, particularly whether science teachers had been consulted about the labs’ specifications and floor plans and when the projects would go out for bids.

“If we want our kids to be prepared to possibly go to the new (UTRGV) medical school, they need to be doing hands-on experiments,” Karam Millin told The Monitor, expressing concern that students at McAllen High School weren’t doing hands-on lab work because the lab lacked proper ventilation.

Gracie Muñoz, another district parent, expressed that not enough funds are being directed toward special education students.

“I think that it’s great that we’re getting Lamar Academy such high, state-of-the-art science equipment; that’s wonderful, but we have a population that needs to be serviced as well,” Muñoz said. “And that population needs hands-on learning …”

While the superintendent was receptive, noting that McAllen ISD can do better, he said funds are limited.

While the TRE generated $7.8 million for the 2018-19 school year, Gonzalez stressed that this wasn’t necessarily “new” money coming into the district’s budget. Rather, it allowed the district to continue operating at the 2015-17 budget levels when it utilized disaster tax relief.

“When we say $7.8 million dollars it’s not necessarily $7.8 million above how we were performing; it’s the same $7.8 million we were utilizing through the disaster tax relief,” he said. “If the TRE wouldn’t have been successful, then we would have had a $7.8 million shortfall. We would have been dealing with less.”

In order to have more funds to work with, the superintendent said the board is considering issuing a maintenance tax note, or a loan, of $27 million that would cover a 3-year period and be used to upgrade McAllen ISD facilities.