By AMANDA KIMBLE
Photos by DAVID SWEARINGEN
BLUFF DALE (December 2, 2016) – Robin Hood threatens to do more than steal from the rich and give to the poor. At Bluff Dale, which has an average school enrollment of 105 students, the Robin Hood plan – Chapter 41 of the Texas Education Code – has left the community with two options.
Residents in the tight-knit, unincorporated Erath County community could admit defeat and eventually be forced to close its school; or they could work to recoup losses related to the mandated wealth equalization which requires property rich school districts to send funds to the state to be redistributed to poor districts.
“We’ve decided we want to keep our school,” Bluff Dale ISD Superintendent Bill Morgan said. “We are going to turn a negative – the money the state is taking from us – into a positive.”
Traveling along U.S. Highway 377 it’s hard to imagine Bluff Dale is property rich. Outside of the picturesque view, motorists pass a handful or two of businesses, a few churches and a post office. There’s not a lot to see because the “wealth” is off the beaten path.
“When the Mountain Lakes subdivision came into existence and first started appearing on the appraisal rolls, that changed Bluff Dale ISD’s worth dramatically,” Erath County Tax Assessor/Collector Jennifer Carey said.
That’s not all, according to Morgan.
“Nine of our top 10 taxpayers are oil and gas firms,” he said, adding the industry, Mountain Lakes and sprawling ranches are the “big three” in terms of property value. “The combination of the three increased value by 10 percent in the last year and we expect it will continue to climb.”
Carey said 2016 real property value in Bluff Dale ISD, including the portion that lies in Hood County, totaled more than $114.5 million with taxes due in the amount of more than $995,000. She said additional taxes due on personal property is almost $147,000.
It’s not those numbers, but Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) wealth equalization formula that makes Bluff Dale “rich,” according to Carey.
“The TEA has some very quirky ways to decide if a school district is wealthy or not,” she said. “It is basically decided on the amount of total property value you have in the jurisdiction and the number of kids attending the school.”
What does a property rich school district look like? Traveling down Church Street and toward the Mountain Lake subdivision, warning signs let motorists know they’re approaching Bluff Dale school.
At first glance, the main brick building appears to be a new one, but it’s about 20 years old – built on funding from a 1996 bond and opened in 1998.
The campus is home to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The main building only has space for the littlest learners, those in prekindergarten through second grade.
“Third through eighth grades are in portable buildings,” Morgan said, leading the way to several buildings lined up behind the brick structure and out of eyeshot of passersby. “This is what a property rich school district really looks like.”
Some of the portable buildings are 30 to 40 years old. They are all well cared for, but their age is apparent. One of them, obviously among the oldest of the portables, is no longer in use.
Morgan said at the beginning of the school year, funding concerns led district officials to forgo the replacement of an almost $7,000 air conditioning unit in one of portable buildings and install an $800 window unit.
An additional double-wide will be moved onto the campus prior to the start of the coming school year to accommodate plans to expand – rather than shutter – the school. Bluff Dale ISD plans to bring back something the community has not had in years – a high school.
“If Bluff Dale had a high school, then their weighted average daily attendance (WADA) is increased,” Carey explained. “The school gets more points for having high school students. The formula for calculating the ‘state’s’ portion of funding is higher for high school than for junior high and elementary.”
In terms of funding, the plans taking shape in Bluff Dale makes sense, according to Carey’s explanation. She said under the current formula, the school district would not have to send as much money to the state to share with “poor” schools if it had a high school. Without it about 50 percent of its revenue will be recaptured next year.
Currently, high schoolers residing in Bluff Dale ISD go to high school in Stephenville or Tolar.
Darby West, PEIMS coordinator for Stephenville ISD, said the high school has nine students who reside in Bluff Dale ISD and an equal number who were enrolled last school year. Superintendent Travis Stilwell said Tolar ISD gets 8-10 Bluff Dale ISD transfer students annually.
“A lot of kids leave earlier than their eighth grade year to make sure they have a slot at their chosen high school,” Morgan said. “When we add the high school, as long as they want to stay in a small school, the desire – or need – to leave goes away.”
Bluff Dale currently has nine 8th grade students, next year’s freshman class. While the plan is to open the door to Bluff Dale high school students in August, Morgan said he doesn’t expect all of them to stay. He said some will join their older siblings in other districts.
Still, Morgan believes the district can reach an enrollment of 140 students. He said there are some high school students whose families plan to bring them back to Bluff Dale ISD, where the ideal classroom size is 15 students per teacher, and there has been interest from outside of the school district and from homeschool families.
In its inaugural year, Bluff Dale high school will have classes for freshman and sophomore students, but Morgan said a junior class could form if the need and desire exists.
Morgan said Bluff Dale ISD has several selling points, including small class sizes; extended day programs that allow parents to pay a nominal fee for after-school care; parental and community involvement; a highly qualified staff and education tailored to individual students. The elementary school will also expand its pre-kindergarten program to welcome those who are not qualified for state funding by charging a fee.
“It will be less than the current cost of daycare, but the students will get the benefit of instruction and learning that will prepare them for the future,” Morgan said, adding fee-based program allow the district to expand instructional time and provide a service to the community while retaining all of the funding.
The high school will offer dual credit courses, certification endorsements, project-based learning, engaging curriculum and UIL academics and activities. There’s an existing field on the campus for six-man football and a plan in place to level a section of the property for a baseball/softball field.
Morgan said the high school will begin major sports at the junior-varsity level and build up to varsity play. The Bobcats will run varsity in cross country and track.
Looking at the flipside, if high schoolers don’t join the student body the community should expect drastic – and almost immediate – cuts.
“For the 2017-18 budget, we would have to eliminate 10 jobs – seven teachers and three aides – to send money away to the state,” he said, adding the district has 23 employees, including 14 teachers.
Morgan also said in two to three years, Bluff Dale ISD would no longer be able to maintain under the current funding formula. The payment being sent to the state (without the addition of a high school) would be an estimated $685,000 next school year and increase to about $1 million the following year.
Meanwhile, Morgan said the school board has decided to pay off the remaining debt on the 1996 bond prior to the start of the coming school year, eliminating the 5-cent interest and sinking rate. The district is then expected to call for a tax rate election in May to help maintain the district.
And, according to the students who begin their education in Bluff Dale, the faces of the district, the school is doing something right. A tour across the campus takes visitors to classrooms where students are excited about learning and teachers are thrilled about doing their jobs.
The class sizes are small enough to allow one-on-one instruction. Students in a single classroom can be seen working on various projects simultaneously in a calm, collected environment.
Bluff Dale ISD is a district where the secretary and cafeteria worker are the same person. The full-time secretary position and the janitor’s job were cut this year due to funding concerns.
It’s a district where the principal also leads athletics, and the superintendent visits classes and knows every student’s name.
BDISD is also a school where a high school diploma dating back to the 1940’s is on display in the foyer trophy case. It belonged to the great-grandmother of a woman whose great-grandchild is currently enrolled in the district.
It’s a “rich” school district where about 30 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged. Bluff Dale ISD is a district that met all state standards in 2016 and also received the distinction of top 25 percent student progress.
Because of those facts, Morgan said if there is something that’s not working in Texas, it isn’t his staff or his students. It’s an out-of-date mandate that continues to meet expectations and legislators who have yet to fix it.
“We can either get with it and play ball to the best of our ability or get overrun,” he said. “For us and every district that is ‘rich,’ the 1993 Robin Hood Plan is clearly not functioning correctly, the entire system needs an overhaul.”
Open enrollment for Bluff Dale High School begins January 3, 2017 for the 2017-18 school year. Transfers will be accepted.
For more information, call 254-728-3277 or visit the district website, www.bdisd.net.