In 2011, shortly after learning about massive cuts in the state’s education budget, Page Rander took office as president of Clear Creek Independent School District board of trustees. She has since led the district through two major bond propositions, among other projects, she said.
“We didn’t have to lay off any teachers and we didn’t have to cut any major programs,” said Rander, 51, a human resources coordinator. “We were able to hold the tide during that.”
But Jeff Larson, 57, Rander’s opponent for her District 4 seat in a May election, said that while academics in the district are laudable, he’s concerned about heavy spending.
“I’d bring fiscal conservatism,” said Larson, an aerospace consultant. “That does not mean putting through a socially conservative agenda. I’m not on the warpath to put prayer back in schools or anything like that. I want things run professionally and competently and I want to make sure people are getting their money’s worth when they pay taxes.”
The May election is shaping up to be a referendum on the district’s recent $487 million bond, which has spread discontent among some groups.
“There’s a pattern where every few years we’re getting another and another and another bond,” Larson said. “To an extent, it’s unavoidable given the rather large growth of the district. But did people really get what they paid for? Are they asking for too many and too large of bonds? I think they have, and we have to put a stop to it.”
Despite organized opposition, Clear Creek ISD voters overwhelmingly approved a $487 million bond issue in May meant to address overcrowding at several schools and pay for needed improvements.
The bond issue is meant to cover building a new elementary school in League City, rebuilding two schools, expanding others and making a host of other improvements.
That bond, combined with a $367 million bond election in 2013, were both necessary to keep up with district growth and were not excessive, Rander said.
“Is it ideal?” Rander said. “No, but it’s how you fund things. It’s how I bought my house and my car — taking on debt. The students have to have these things.”
Larson, meanwhile, argues that it isn’t the bonds themselves he is opposed to, but the individual costs associated with them.
“Some of the people who asked me to run put together some engineers to look at the plans and capacities of the buildings,” Larson said. “The numbers didn’t seem right to them — it looks like we overpaid for a few things.
“Maybe that can be fixed with more rigor in the contracting process. I’m not exactly sure how to handle it, but it’s something I would take a harder look at.”
Rander is most proud of the students’ academic achievement and the board’s ability to overcome state finance issues, she said.
“One of the biggest issues is unfunded mandates, things that come down from the state and fed that say we have to comply, but offer no additional funding,” Rander said. “It all ties into funding in general for public education. It’s not where it needs to be.”
More and more school boards across Galveston County are forced to adopt deficit budgets as they struggle with myriad issues. Those issues include a state system that funnels local tax money to districts with small tax bases, less state funding and the loss of other funding avenues.
“It’s never really been fixed,” Larson said. “We have this strange, hybrid system where what you pay in local maintenance and operations doesn’t matter. If you raise taxes, you get less money from the state. But despite that, certain districts always seem to come out ahead.”
Rander advocates for a bevy of legislative changes that could improve matters on a local level, such as re-evaluating school finance and changing the state accountability system, among others.
But Larson said he was less convinced those changes would happen.
“I don’t know that there is a solution in the classical sense of how do you ensure that every kid gets the same education,” Larson said. “I’m not even sure that’s appropriate. I think school choice will play into it.
“I’m not sure you can look at money and how to distribute it more fairly. We’ve gone to ridiculous extremes to ensure everyone has the same amount, but it’s still uneven results.”