The Cleveland ISD board of trustees on Monday, Jan. 9, approved the $2.8 million purchase of 94 acres located on FM 1010 near the Bella Vista Subdivision. The purchase, which will be paid from the general fund, is being seen by some trustees as an important step toward a potential second high school in the future.
In a statement, Cleveland ISD Superintendent Stephen McCanless said that a majority of the board believed the land purchase was a preemptive move as large tracts of land suitable for a high school are getting scarce in the area and land prices continue to escalate.
“With our rapid growth, the Board made a decision to plan for future growth. This piece of land is located exactly in the center of Cleveland ISD, the same distance from the north to the south, which makes it ideal for another high school campus. A future high school campus would serve the District and its residents well at that location,” McCanless said.
Modern-day high schools within a large school district like Cleveland ISD need roughly 100 acres for all the facilities that accompany them, he added.
“You need at least 30 acres for sports facilities, eight acres or so for a retention pond and room for a 500,000-square-foot, three-story high school campus. The board felt it was better to buy now at a lower price than to pay more in the years to come,” McCanless said.
In preparation for the purchase, the District had the tracts, which are currently owned by Donald Enloe, Irene and Roland Coronel, and Jeremy and Johnnie Dishongh, appraised by a third-party appraisal company, Conroe-based Alliance Property Appraisal. The appraisal estimated the value to be $1.6 million, far less than the price being listed by the sellers who originally valued it at $3.3 million.
“We negotiated it down to $3.3 million when it was for a full 100 acres. The Board didn’t like that price, so Mr. Enloe came back and said he would take some acres off and the purchase would be 94 acres for $2.8 million. That price includes $400,000 worth of land clearing. The timber on the land doesn’t have a lot of market value,” he said.
McCanless said the general fund is at a healthy level and should be able to cover the price of the purchase and additional portable buildings that are needed to address classroom overcrowding at some campuses.
The board was split on the decision to purchase the land with Board President Willie Carter and Board Secretary Amanda Brooks voting against it. The remaining board members – Vice President Kelly Axton, Chris Wood, Robert Howell, Aaron Montesnieto and Coach Marvin Searles voted in favor of the purchase.
Earlier in the meeting, the issue of classroom overcrowding was raised by concerned Board members, who are weighing the possibility of calling for another bond referendum election either in May or November 2023.
Susan Ard, director of communications and media for Cleveland ISD, gave a presentation that showed the history of bond referendums in the District over the last decade, and how voters decided the fate of those bonds. Last November, the District attempted to pass a $115 million, “zero tax rate increase” bond, but it was rejected by voters. Ard explained that Cleveland ISD residents know the District is growing quickly, but already feel overburdened with taxes. While the median income in Cleveland is just $42,000, residents in Cleveland proper saw the highest tax rate increases in the County, according to McCanless.
“Sometimes it’s hard to swallow as a Cleveland person. They basically went to sleep and it was a great school district, and then woke up to find there was this influx [of new students],” Ard said. She explained that voters are already feeling overtaxed as their valuations have gone up even if the tax rate has not.
Ard suggested waiting a year before presenting another bond referendum, at the earliest in May 2024.
“It gives the taxpayers a year to not vote on bonds. They know it’s not a tax increase from us but the appraisal district is going to come back and reassess their values and raise their taxes. They know it’s going to happen and it’s causing a lot of frustration,” she said.
Board member Robert Howell pointed out that even if voters approved a bond in May, it would still take another three years for a new high school campus to be constructed. Trustee Chris Wood added that students are already having to sit on the floor near teachers’ desks because there is no room for them.
Staying ahead of the growth is a real challenge. Even as Cleveland ISD in the process of purchasing additional portable buildings, at a cost of roughly $1 million each, the portable buildings are a temporary solution to a permanent issue.
From 2012 to 2022, Cleveland ISD saw a 215 percent jump in enrollment, from 3,596 students in 2012 to 11,357 students in 2022. Despite those numbers, only a few thousand registered voters within Cleveland ISD decided the fate of bond. The District is split among three counties – Liberty, San Jacinto and Montgomery counties – with Liberty County making up the majority. Only 3,351 residents in Liberty County cast their ballots in the bond referendum election in November, which coincided with the usually-high-voter-turnout mid-term elections.
After much debate, the Board agreed to postpone a decision on calling for a bond referendum until the Jan. 17 meeting. McCanless said the Jan. 17 meeting will be the last opportunity for the Board to call for an election in May 2023 due to election deadlines.