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“THIS IS A FOCUS ON SAFETY…”
ELECTION SATURDAY, MAY 6
Decisions made by the state government in the wake of a mass shooting in Uvalde a year ago have prompted school districts across Texas to pay for upgrades to their safety measures, and this may mean expenses of up to $5 million at Cotulla.
Voters will go to the polls Saturday, May 6, to decide whether to allow the school district administration to take out the bonds, repayment of which will be largely underwritten by revenues generated from mineral taxes. Property owners, however, will see an increase in their taxes if the bond election passes.
If approved, the bond will be added to the district’s current debt payments and is expected to contribute to an overall tax rate of 15.9 cents per $100 of appraised value (before homestead exemption) in the ‘interest and sinking’ fund. The bulk of the repayment, however, will be covered by minerals, and Cotulla ISD believes homeowners will only pay around two percent of the actual debt.
The estimate is based on a projection by minerals study firm Wardlaw Appraisal, which projects that La Salle County’s mineral values will remain high for at least another decade.
According to the school district’s financial adviser, Alfredo Vela, the owner of a property valued at $75,000 will be taxed an additional $7.28 after the standard homestead exemption. The owner of a property valued at $50,000 will see a spike barely above two dollars in the annual school district tax bill.
Senior citizens and the disabled will not see a tax rate hike if they have filed for the appropriate exemptions.
Cotulla ISD anticipates paying off the bond in five years.
District Superintendent Ruben Cervantes said last week that Cotulla ISD expects to receive some funds from the state for expenses incurred by the improvements to campus security but believes the amounts will trickle down to schools over an extended period of time, beginning this summer with an estimated $200,000.
Both Vela and Cervantes believe the state support is too little and too slow in relation to the district-wide need for, and the urgency of, the upgrades.
In May 2022, a gunman entered the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde and shot dead 19 children and two adults before he was killed by law enforcement officers. The man had earlier shot his grandmother in her home, taken a vehicle and crashed it near the school, and had fired shots at people outside a nearby business before he entered the classroom building and murdered the students and teachers.
The district recently renewed its cooperative arrangement with the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office for deployment of a fully trained and armed sheriff’s deputy as a school resource officer at each campus. The district had previously only had two such officers.
Last fall, Cotulla ISD board members gave the final go-ahead for the district to adopt the Guardian Program, in which school district employees are trained in carrying concealed firearms on campus during the school day. The program went into effect at Cotulla in January this year.
Meanwhile, additional safety measures have been put in place at the district’s four campuses, including full-time video surveillance, improved entry security, and some fencing.
Topping the list for Cotulla ISD’s installations will be construction of secure lobbies at each campus, ballistic glass and window film, and perimeters of eight-foot security fencing at every facility.
The district also hopes to continue upgrading its security technology, improving camera coverage; and making alterations to many of its buildings in order to restrict access.
State mandates will also require school districts to install panic buttons throughout their campuses.
The district’s newest campus, which cost over $24 million to build, opened only a year and a half ago as the Ramirez/Burks Elementary School north of downtown Cotulla, replacing a set of buildings dating from the 1950s to the 1990s. The new campus is included on the list of facilities that require upgrades to meet state requirements.
Fencing installation has already begun at the Frank Newman Middle School and at Encinal Elementary. Children enrolled in the Cotulla ISD early-learning center will soon be moved from their campus to the 1990s wing of the former Ramirez/Burks, which was designed with limited public access.
“This is a focus on safety,” Supt. Cervantes said last week. The district superintendent is barred by law from campaigning for or against a ballot item in an election. “The Texas governor told the school districts to upgrade their safety measures, and these are mandates handed down by the state government, but there hasn’t been any funding to back them up yet.”
“If the bond passes, we can do it faster,” Vela said. “We don’t want to wait a year and a half or longer to gather up enough state funding to do it.”
The last time Cotulla ISD asked voters to approve a bond issue, the school was granted the green light for a $65 million high school, instructional sports facilities, agriculture education and workshop buildings, additions to the CISD vehicle fleet and more technology upgrades that include a complete computer instruction and technology learning center.
Supt. Cervantes said he believes the state’s new requirements for security installations will be included in the design of the new high school – which will be built on the present high school site – but noted that the complex encompasses several acres.
“The state wants us to make these upgrades now, and we want to make them now,” the superintendent said. “I don’t believe that parents want to wait until we have built a new high school to be sure their children are safe on their campus every day.”
State requirements that all schools be fenced had been issued prior to the shooting in Uvalde, but schools that installed six-foot fencing are now finding themselves falling short under the new mandates, Vela said.
“The bond issue for the new high school was approved for the purpose of building new facilities, not for improving safety measures at various sites,” Cervantes added. “The new high school will have security built into its design.”
Both Cervantes and Vela acknowledged that fencing around school buildings, secure lobbies, restricted access, full-time surveillance and other new features may give an intimidating impression but said they believe parents expect their children to be fully protected while in the school’s care.
“Nobody wants a school to look or feel like a prison,” Cervantes said, “and we aren’t doing that. We are making these changes in ways that will be practical and will enhance the school environment. Every child deserves to learn in a safe environment.”
If Cotulla ISD voters approve the $5 million bond issue in May, the district will channel the debt and repayment into its ‘interest and sinking’ fund, rather than the operations budget, as doing so prevents the state from recapturing the revenues.
“At the moment, we are subject to as much as seventy-two percent recapture of our tax revenues by the state, and the money for these safety upgrades would be lost,” Vela said. “By making this a debt for facilities development, we protect it from the state taking it back. In fact, we can say that the bond revenue goes dollar-for-dollar to the school.”
“We can’t compromise student safety,” the superintendent said. “We have to move forward.”
Early voting in the election continues through Tuesday, May 2, at the school district’s central office on Main Street. On election day, voters will cast ballots at Cotulla City Hall, Encinal Community Center, or Fowlerton First Baptist Church.