McAllen ISD trustees voted to direct administration to prepare for a voter-approval tax rate election Thursday, although calling that election will require another board vote and more wrangling over expenses on the board is inbound.
The election would allow trustees to ask the community to raise the district’s maintenance and operations tax rate by a possible 4.14 cents.
Expense wrangling is liable to focus on innovative special projects funded through federal ESSER funds and approved by the board over the past school year, among them a $2 million commitment to IMAS, a $4 million commitment to Quinta Mazatlán and a $12.5 million investment in a collegiate high school.
The prospect of the election came up during the board’s struggle to approve a compensation plan over the past couple of months.
Trustees did manage to approve a plan and a budget Wednesday, though financial concerns persist and leadership is worried over how to pay for a compensation plan next year.
The decision to move toward an election was not unanimous. Two trustees — Danny Vela and Sofia Peña — voted against it. Trustee Marco Suarez, who expressed concern about an election Wednesday, was absent from Thursday’s meeting.
The decision does not mean that a tax rate election is a certainty.
The board has until Aug. 22 to call an election, and trustees expressed a desire for more conversation on financial belt-tightening measures before pulling the trigger.
“Does this mean that we’re gonna go forward with the voter-approved tax ratification election?” Board President Tony Forina asked rhetorically. “No it does not. We have time to prepare, we have some adjustments that our board has asked for administration to look into to really ensure that this is what is best, not only for our school district, but for our community.”
The district last called for a tax ratification election in 2018. That election, focused on funding safety and security at the district, passed.
Even trustees who supported moving forward with preparing for the election seemed less than gung-ho.
The sentiment seemed to be that the election may be a necessary evil to keep employee salaries competitive.
“It’s very difficult to go out and ask people for pennies right now,” Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez said. “Very difficult. But it’s time. It’s time that we at least consider it.”
Gonzalez said the election would likely be the best shot at providing competitive pay to employees.
A majority of trustees also thought it was time to consider a tax hike, usually in conjunction with cost-savings measures.
“I’m not one for taxing, but we need a TRE mechanism before we even do anything else,” Trustee Sam Saldivar Jr. said. “If we’re even thinking about a bond down the road, if and when that gets approved, you have to use all your local resource funding in order to sustain the maintenance and operation of those. Otherwise, you’re gonna fall back into a situation that we have been in the past and we’re likely starting to move into in the future. Where you don’t have the money to maintain and you’re going back to roofs that leak, air conditioners that are not working, and etcetera, etcetera.”
Desire for an efficiency audit prior to that possible election also appears to have waned somewhat on the board.
A disaster declaration related to the February 2021 winter storm makes that audit optional.
Saldivar, who said Wednesday that an audit should be a necessity, said Thursday that financial data on the district is available online and should answer questions about the district’s finances.
Before the board votes on whether or not to call the election in August, its attention will turn to cost-savings measures.
The most visible of those expenses increasingly seem to be the district’s innovative ESSER expenditures, particularly funding for IMAS and Quinta and the district’s UTRGV partnership.
All told, those projects account for $18.5 million, and the UTRGV project will result in recurring expenditures.
Trustee Conrado “Ito” Alvarado brought up pulling out of the Quinta project weeks ago, saying he had “buyer’s remorse” over the investment.
No discussion on reneging on that investment or altering it ever materialized.
Trustee Sofia Peña, by far the most vocal opponent of the possible tax hike, said after Thursday’s meeting that she would request the board revisit all three of those special projects, singling out the UTRGV deal for particular criticism.
Peña said she did not attend the meeting in which the board OK’d that investment because of reservations she had then, and while she didn’t say she would necessarily call for backing out of the deal Thursday, she did say it warranted further discussion. She noted national financial conditions and argued that the district already has Achieve Early College.
“I think it’s a project that we went into not taking into account where our budget was,” she said. “It’s money that we can absolutely use for compensation for our employees.”
Altering the UTRGV deal — and deals with Quinta and IMAS — would theoretically be possible, contingent on board direction, Superintendent Gonzalez said after Thursday’s meeting.
Administrative spending, Peña said, should also be a target of financial austerity.
“We are top-heavy and there’s data to prove that,” she said.
Though not the only trustee to bring up cost-savings measures or revisiting special projects, Peña was the most vocal about places to save and the only trustee to staunchly oppose a tax hike.
By far the most vocally opposed to the potential tax hike, Peña was visibly agitated by the prospect, gesturing and speaking loudly.
“That makes me very upset. I’m embarrassed about that. And I’m not going to be quiet about it anymore,” she said. “We can’t just go ‘Oh well, the community needs to help us.’ We need to help ourselves. And that’s why we are out at this point. And I think we need to start looking at how we are spending the money.”
A tax increase would almost certainly draw some gestures and loud speech from at least some of the community.
Trustee Vela, who also voted against moving forward with the tax election, noted that asking McAllen voters to fork over more money is likely to be an uphill battle, especially considering current economic conditions.
“Will the community accept it?” he said. “It’s tough.”