In Odessa, a $398 million bond election comes down to trust as voters weigh pros and cons

On May 7, Ector County residents will decide whether to pass the bond proposal, which would fund projects like building a new high school. Supporters say the spending package is needed to address aging facilities and overcrowding, but some locals have misgivings about the bond’s price tag and the district’s leadership.

(Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

By Mitch Borden

Volunteers in Odessa have been going door to door telling people why they should vote for Ector County Independent School District’s approximately $398 million bond — one of the largest spending packages the district has ever put before the community.

The bond is split up into two ballot propositions and if both are approved, the district would put millions toward repairs at its 43 existing campuses, open a new facility to teach trade skills and build a third high school.

The bond proposal is a big ask for the conservative community.

“I’m always leery of school bond things,” one voter told volunteers canvassing in Odessa recently. “It’s not that I don’t know we need them but it’s my lack of trust in the administration.”

That sentiment — echoed in the local newspaper and seen across social media — has turned the spring election into a multi-million dollar test to see if the majority of voters have faith in the district and its current administration. Bond supporters point out the district has improved test scores in the last five years, hired a new superintendent and recruited hundreds of teachers — which they say is evidence things are improving.

Former Odessa Mayor and bond advocate Lorraine Perryman says the stakes are high and the “entire future of Odessa entirely depends on solving these problems in our public schools.”

She knows this bond may not be the most popular idea — especially considering the last time the district tried to pass a bond back in 2017. At the time, voters resoundingly rejected a bid to build a new senior high campus after it was revealed the district had misrepresented data and local education advocates pulled their support.

Perryman, who co-chaired the committee that crafted the current bond proposal, says this election is a different situation and proponents are working to rebuild trust with the community.  While the committee ultimately decided to put a $398,255,00 million bond to voters, the group found over a billion dollars worth of needs across the district.

Superintendent Scott Muri explains the factors that shaped Ector County ISD’s bond proposition. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

According to Perryman, the overcrowding situation is dire at Permian and Odessa High Schools, the district’s main senior high campuses.

“The high schools, there is nowhere else to build. They are at capacity and there is nowhere else to put a portable building,” says Perryman.

In the last decade, the district’s student population has fluctuated, but overall has grown by more than 2,000 students, according to district data. District leaders expect thousands more kids will begin attending Odessa school in the next six years as well. Critics have their doubts about these projections but overcrowding at schools has been a well-known problem in Odessa.

But when it comes to passing bonds to build more facilities, one of the biggest hurdles for voters is the increased taxes that come with these spending packages. According to estimates made by the district, if passed, Ector County ISD’s bond could raise the average homeowner’s property tax by about $200 a year.

Across the state, school officials are seeing some signs that it may be getting harder for school districts to pass bonds in Texas.

Greg Smith is the executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition which helps school districts that are growing at a rapid rate. Along with other education officials throughout Texas, he watched last fall as an unusually high number of bonds failed.

“There’s a lot of angst out there because of the pandemic,” says Smith, explaining why voters might have voted against bond proposals last year. “Masking, no masking. Critical race theory. Books, library books. People being laid off, inflation rates.”

While Smith hopes last year was an aberration, he also says it was a sign that districts need to ask for only what they need and communicate with local residents.

Smith says, “This is not something that can be done in the back room.” He continued, “This is something that has to be open and transparent with a heavy sense of accountability along the way.”

Permian and Odessa High Schools have been overcrowded for years and officials believe building a third senior high campus is the best solution to this problem. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

In Odessa, it appears education officials and advocates are doing just that to reach potential voters like Melanie Thomason. She used to be suspicious of bond initiatives in the past, because she was concerned about money.

“I raised my girls as a single mom and was always scared for more, more, more when I didn’t have it at the time,” says Thomason.

In the lead-up to the May 7 election, bond supporters have made sure Odessans have the chance to learn about the bond and hear from the leaders of Ector County ISD. Thomason attended one of these bond presentations, which she says went a long way toward convincing her to vote for it.

 According to her, “I just didn’t know what all the needs were and I’m just really excited.”

This is exactly the response Perryman is hoping for people to have across Odessa.

“I think it comes down to understanding the need and that they trust that the school district is making the changes that are necessary,” she says.

Perryman is optimistic the approximately $398 million bond will pass, especially if voter turnout is high. If locals reject the district’s request though, she says district leaders will “come back in November, they’ll come back in May. Because these problems have to be solved. What are we going to do?”

No matter the result of this election, Perryman believes the question of how to pass a bond in Odessa isn’t going away anytime soon. Especially since leaders at Ector County ISD believe there are more costs, more needs and a growing student population on the horizon.

About Mitch Borden

Mitch Borden is Marfa Public Radio's Permian Basin Reporter. If you have any questions about West Texas' energy industry or the Permian Basin email him at mitch@marfapublicradio.org.
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