- Paris Flash
- Real Estate
By JEFF PARISH
Paris Independent School District Trustee Jenny Wilson’s criticism of the district’s decision to raise taxes raised the ire of fellow board members and district administrators. Emails and letters obtained by eParis Extra show just how much.
In a letter sent to Board President George Fisher the week of Aug. 17, Trustee Dr. Gordon Strom blasted Wilson for saying “we had not had adequate opportunity to discuss the issue.” He called it “an insult to the PISD administration and to the other board members” and called for Wilson to publicly apologize.
“Her attempt to define her position as the sole objection to raising the tax rate was self serving. She was indeed fully aware of our previous discussions and had every opportunity to discuss her concerns,” Strom wrote. “The public statement by an individual board member that reflects on the judgement of the administration and other board members is intolerable.”
Strom said no one wanted to raise taxes, but the district had no other options because it has to raise enough money to pay its debts. Wilson’s comments threatened the board’s “cohesiveness” and meant “that we must challenge the integrity of one of our own.”
Wilson fired back in an email saying that she was “disappointed” by Strom’s letter and would have “preferred to discuss your concerns in person.” She said it was not her intention to insult anyone and did not see how questioning whether there had been enough discussion could be seen as insulting.
“However, what is insulting is that you suggested that my objection was ‘self-serving,’” she wrote. “Dr. Strom, if anyone owes anyone an apology it is you. I am on this board to try to do the best for my kids, and everyone else’s kids. Period.”
Wilson said she had not raised concerns sooner because as a new board member, she thought the time for that would come after the workshops once administration had delivered their information and recommendations.“That is why I was surprised that we were just going to vote to approve the tax rate,” Wilson wrote. “We did not and still have not had a thorough debate on the tax rate increase. To suggest that we have and it is in the ‘best interest of the taxpayer’ is incorrect.”
She promised to continue asking questions, and did so frequently according to the documents from PISD. Wilson sent an email to Business Manager Tish Holleman on Aug. 22 that asked for information about bus routes, federal funding and the alternative school. Wilson said she was looking for quick “yes or no” answers and simple facts and figures.
“When I read those, they’re not yes or no questions. They’re very detailed,” Holleman said at a board meeting in early September in which Wilson was the subject of a closed-session complaint. “Even saying yes or no would require a lot of research.”
The “detailed” request broke each area of concern down into several questions. For busing, Wilson asked:
Based on an email “from a past school district auditor” about federal funding, she asked:
On Paris Alternative School for Success, Wilson inquired about:
The email trail starts with an Aug. 2 message from Wilson asking Holleman if the district had looked at options to a tax increase, such as refinancing bonds, restructuring debt or a “tax swap.” That’s where the debt service side of the tax rate is lowered and the operations side is increased by the same amount, which keeps the overall rate level but generates more revenue for operating expenses.
Much of the district’s debt is so new it doesn’t qualify for refinancing, Holleman said. PISD has taken advantage of it in the past, and likely will down the road. She also said the district did a tax swap back in 2009. Voters approved an operational tax increase of 13 cents, and the district lowered its debt rate by 13 cents.
The increased operational income would have meant more revenue from the state, as well, she said. PISD had planned to use that money to rebuild campus and department budgets, address technology needs, compete renovation projects and build a fund balance.
After the first year, however, Texas found itself in the hole and cut educational budgets statewide. Paris ISD’s share was $1.5 million. The economic downturn and local plant closings — and resulting drop in student population as parents moved to find work — cost another $500,000.
Paris Regional Medical Center’s decision to move the majority of its services to the north campus will cost the district even more revenue. Paris ISD’s operational budget “is going to have plenty of its own problems in the very near future,” Holleman said, so the debt portion of the budget has to be able to pay for itself.
“And the scary part?” she wrote. “We already know that 2013-14 will likely look significantly worse because we’ll have to do something with salaries.”
Paris ISD has historically paid above state minimum, but the pay scale has been frozen so long that the state’s base pay scale has caught up and is dragging PISD’s pay scale up with it.
“I just want what is best for PISD,” Wilson responded. “I know that the opportunity cost (the loss of tax revenue from potential home buyers and new businesses and increased enrollment from those home buyers with children) far outweighs the short term benefit of a tax increase. However, I suspect that the vote will pass 6-1. I think we will continue to see our tax base shrink, and that makes me very sad. Are you aware that the average house in Texas stays on the market about 6 months, but in PISD it says on the market over 13 months? Why? Our taxes.”
Wilson followed up Aug. 6 with an email to Fisher and Superintendent Paul Trull asking that the agenda for the next school board meeting include development of a debt reduction plan — which so far has not happened. Her own suggestions included building utilization, “in particular selling the administration building and moving offices — PJH, Travis and Givens are all under-utilized and could accommodate offices.” She also recommended a school board spending freeze with no travel and a reduction in non-teaching staff.
That same day, Wilson announced she would not be able to attend training at the annual Texas Association of School Boards conference, but asked how much it cost to send board members and staff. Holleman responded that for seven people who went, the district spent $5.206.60, including hotel, travel and meals.
Wilson also asked how much the district spent last year on all travel expenses for board, administration and employees. If that email was answered, it was not included in the information released to eParis Extra, but eParis’ own information request puts the number at $63,555.28:
Toward the end of the month, Wilson shared an email from Paris Economic Development Corp. Director Steve Gilbert with Fisher about a possible workshop to discuss applying industrial efficiency methods to the school district.