Several high school officials present their research on potential future academies to the Board of Trustees. (Photo by Leopold Knopp)

The Lewisville ISD Board of Trustees met for a work session Tuesday night Oct. 9 to discuss new options to compete with charter schools and fight for a half-million dollar a year revenue stream.  

The first portion of the meeting, on which a little more than half the time was spent, was the discussion of future academy options. The school district already hosts a collegiate academy at The Colony High School, from which high school students may graduate with an associate’s degree, multiple career centers and one of the first elementary-level STEM academies in the country at Donald Elementary, but with “school choice” becoming a buzzword at the national and state levels regarding schools, the district may want to expand.

The district assigned two teams of principals and school personnel, one for elementary schools and one for high schools, to research possible new programs from schools across the country. In addition to interviewing personnel from these schools, the elementary group surveyed parents from preschool to second grade and found that STEM academies were wildly popular — asked to pick their two preferred choices between STEM and four other options, more than 80 percent of parents picked STEM — and a leadership academy was the second most popular choice with 72 percent of the vote. Other choices included fine arts, coding and classical education programs.

The high school group noted a correlation between the introduction of high school level academies and “fixing problems” within those high schools, including diversifying those schools demographically and keeping enrollment strong even on campuses with a high number of disadvantaged students. The academies provided a clear path forward after high school that simple graduation did not necessarily provide.

Both groups presented three-to-five year plans to expand academy options, but the board seemed mostly skeptical of adding too many new academies, instead wanting to focus on options that would improve the learning of all students taking what board member Tracy Scott Miller called a more egalitarian approach.

“We’ve created this culture where ‘we want more STEM academies, I want to get my kid into STEM academies,’ because guess what the assumption is? STEM academy is better,” he said. “While I love the STEM academy, I reject the notion that it’s better for our kids, because there are more than 40 campuses who I would send my granddaughter who many of you have seen to every single one of them, whether they have a STEM academy or a leadership or whatever, and I think that’s what we’ve got to be careful of.”

Board president Angie Cox agreed, saying that the individual teachers were the ones who usually made the ultimate difference.

“Every time I’ve been to a function or something where the seniors are there, every single one of them tells me, ‘it’s because of this teacher, this is why I’m going into chemistry’ or, ‘it’s because of this teacher is why I’m becoming a teacher.’ Every single one,” she said. “They didn’t say it was because of a program or that I was in this club, none of them have said that. To me, I feel like the district should be putting our efforts into the classrooms.”

The rest of the discussion centered on financial options that had come up for the district, particularly a bond refinancing option that led to contentious debate between board members. CFO Mike Ball and John Martin of Hilltop Securities, the district’s contracted financial advisor, explained that the district has the opportunity to refinance series 2010 bonds at a fixed rate. The bonds were issued as Direct Subsidy Build America Bonds, which come with federal subsidies built in. The federal government made subject to sequestration in 2013, meaning a varying amount of money is withheld from that subsidy depending on the year.

Refinancing these bonds as 2018 bonds would mean they would not be subject to sequestration anymore, leading to slight savings for the district — a cumulative total of $811,427 saved by 2028. However, Build America Bonds come with federal subsidies built in that were meant to help stimulate the economy in the wake of the 2008 housing market crash, in this case close to $500,000. Board members Tracy Scott Miller and Jenny Proznik said that, instead of refinancing and saving less than $1 million overall, the district should hold onto the series 2010 bonds and the subsidies that come with them since those subsidies can be put into the Maintenance and Operations fund. The board cannot raise the M&O tax rate without calling an election, and has been looking for other ways to put money into the fund.

“While we’ve been going out and telling the public of the pressure on our M&O, and we have an opportunity here … to take a half a million dollars a year and transfer it into the coveted, the highly regarded, the highly protected M&O fund, then we should be doing everything we can at this point to capture as much money into that fund at this point as possible,” Miller said. “We’re going to save you guys a lot of money [with refinancing]. But you know what? We’re going to put some additional pressure on the CAD and the future boards and the CFO and on you John to come up with more M&O money and here’s half a million that we’re going to walk away from? That’s my fundamental concern.”

Proznik was furious that the subsidy money wasn’t already going into the M&O fund, and was vehemently against refinancing them.  

“I couldn’t be more against this if I jumped up and down,” she said. “It gives no relief to the taxpayer on the homeowner’s impact, but it could give $7k to each campus per year. That’s precious money. That’s money I can actually hand them.”

The board also discussed the potential of looking for sponsors for future teacher banquets.

The school board will hold its monthly regular meeting next week, 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at the LISD Administrative Center in Lewisville.