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Voters OK Over $6B In Texas

DALLAS -Voters in Texas on Saturday gave issuers - primarily school districts - the go-ahead for more than $6 billion of new debt.

The largest referendum was $1.35 billion of bonds for the Dallas Independent School District. Nearly 19,000 voters weighed in and the package was approved with 54% in favor.

Turnout was light. Less than 4% of the almost 500,000 registered voters in the second-largest school system in the state turned out Saturday.

DISD hasn't filed its fiscal 2007 audit with the state yet and remains mired in a financial scandal that has plagued the district since summer 2006, when it was uncovered that hundreds of employees were abusing district-issued credit cards. Failure to file the audit in a timely manner puts the school district in noncompliance with Securities and Exchange Commissiondisclosure rules, hindering access to the capital markets and forcing DISD to issue debt through private placements.

Ron Kirk, co-chairman of the bond campaign, said he's glad voters were able "to look past the audit issues and give the district the green light" to meet its construction needs.

The former Dallasmayor and Texas secretary of state said there's been no malfeasance by officials and the problems with the audit lie with the accounting "methodology and the talent."

"Superintendent [Michael] Hinojosadoesn't gloss over the problems with the audit and the damage it's caused to the district," Kirk said. "He understands we need to greatly enhance procedures and talent, and I'm glad the voters realized those problems don't outweigh the needs of the district to upgrade facilities and technology. When you defer maintenance, it just kills you and you have to keep up the maintenance or you end up paying more later."

The bond package includes funds for 15 new schools, 12 additions, and about $500 million of renovations to more than 200 campuses. Many of the 229 schools in the district are more than 50 years old, and DISD currently serves about 160,000 students.

Most of the projects from a $1.37 billion bond package approved by voters in 2002 are completed or nearing completion. The district built 20 new schools, added more than 1,600 classrooms, and renovated numerous existing facilities with those proceeds.

Spokesman Jon Dahlandersaid the district plans to retain all the staff used in conjunction with the 2002 bond projects for the next wave of construction.

He said requests for qualifications will be sent out in the next few weeks. Officials hope to decide on architecture firms within about three months, and then it usually takes five to six months for the firms to complete their design, and construction of new schools may start in about a year, according to Dahlander.

Complete voting results and the exact dollar amount of all bond measures on the ballot in Texas on Saturday were not available by press time. Following are some of the other major referendums for which results were available.

Voters in the Lewisville Independent School District approved one proposition worth $697.7 million for new schools and technology upgrades at existing facilities. Officials in the North Texas district expect to continue to add about 1,000 students annually until 2016. The student population of the rapidly growing system about 10 miles north of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has climbed 64% in the past decade to about 49,500 currently.

Voters said no to $79 million for a special-events center.

Spokeswoman Karen Permittisaid the district broke the referendum into two propositions "to get clear input from the community on whether or not they felt the need for the center."

Voters narrowly opposed the center by a margin of 3,720 to 3,698. The first proposition passed with 58% of the 7,421 votes.

"Proposition 1 is critical to keeping up with our district's growth and continuing to provide the best education possible for our students," superintendent Jerry Roysaid in a release. "The special event center was an item that LISD wanted to place before the voters to help our district decide whether our community desired such a facility for our student programs and for the entire community. We appreciate that our community took our bond proposal seriously and shared their voice with the district."

Meanwhile, 72% of voters in the Plano Independent School Districtapproved a $490 million bond package for four new campuses on the east side of the suburban district 20 miles north of downtown Dallas.

Since 1997,voters there have overwhelmingly approved five bond elections for a total of $771.7 million. The $490 million bond package represents the largest-ever single referendum put before Plano ISD voters.

The booming Northwest Independent School District in the northern suburbs of Fort Worth celebrated 72% approval for its $260 million bond package. The 12,000-student, 232-square-mile district expects to double its enrollment in five years.

In the city itself, a minuscule turnout of 3.25% of eligible voters gave better than 68% approval to $150 million of street bonds for Fort Worth.

Elsewhere, a $343.7 million bond proposal for the Austin Independent School District won easily, with some of the projects garnering better than 70% approval. The district will start financing improvements as early as this summer, officials said.

In the Austin suburb of Pflugerville, voters approved a $7 million library expansion but rejected an $11 million City Hall and $16 million recreation center. Also in central Texas, voters gave 60% approval to $172.5 million of bonds for the Waco Independent School District and 56% to the neighboring Midway Independent School District's $75.8 million proposal.

In Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, four proposals to use visitor taxes to fund $415 million in civic improvement projects passed easily. The extension of a 1.75% tax on hotel rooms and a 5% tax on car rentals will fund improvements to the San Antonio River, new youth and amateur athletic facilities, renovations of arts centers, and upgrades to rodeo grounds and arenas, including the AT&T Center. The venue tax was approved in 1999 to build the center, home of the National Basketball Association's San Antonio Spurs.

In the Comal Independent School District northwest of San Antonio, 70% of voters approved a $206 million bond issue for new schools and improvements. To the northeast, voters in the Seguin Independent School District rejected a proposed $85 million high school and renovation of the football stadium, while narrowly approving $35 million for a new elementary school and renovations to other facilities.

Lone Star Collegehad its $420 million bond package approved by 62% of the electorate in four counties around Houston. Enrollment at the junior college's five campuses has increased 51% since 2001 to nearly 50,000, and demographic studies show the student population climbing to as high as 80,000 by 2015.

About 71% of voters in the San Jacinto College District also approved a $295 million bond package for new instructional science, allied health, and other technical-education facilities at each of its three campuses. The east Harris County district also will update libraries and physical education facilities, as well as construct a new single location for student-support services.

Other large bond elections passed Saturday include the Klein Independent School District's $647 million package and the Conroe Independent School District with $527 million. In East Texas, voters in the Longview Independent School District approved a $267 million bond referendum and voters in suburban Houston passed a $250 million election for the Humble Independent School District.

Richard Williamson contributed to this story.

 

 

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