When early voting starts today for May 6 local elections being held throughout Texas, Collin County voters will have a very big choice on their ballot: whether to vote “For” or “Against” a $600 million Collin College bond proposition.

Most residents agree that Collin College is an asset to their community. Where they disagree is on the historic levels of debt-issuing and spending power the Board of Trustees’ proposed bond package gives college officials – all without any further voter input – and the lack of transparency and accountability in how trustees will spend the funds.

Labeled Proposition No. 1 on the ballot, the bond package’s huge $600 million price tag alone is a big red flag for many Collin County voters. So is the 12-cent property tax rate hike the proposition authorizes to pay off the debt – a potential 150 percent addition to the college district’s current 8.1-cent tax rate.

Aside from its sheer size, the bond proposal’s vagueness is a concern for voters. According to the proposition language, trustees could spend the borrowed funds on any projects that fall within the description of “constructing, improving, renovating and equipping school buildings in the district,” or on real estate.

Trustees have proposed a “Master Plan” for expanding the college’s facilities which they hope to pay for with bond funds. But beyond breaking building costs into three separate “packages” or phases, the plan doesn’t include details on the costs of the individual projects which are estimated to add up to $600 million – and in any case, the proposition doesn’t obligate current or future trustees to follow any particular plan at all.

Jim Dillavou, a Collin County voter and CPA who lives in Plano, went searching for details about the bond and was shocked to find there weren’t many beyond the trustees’ high-level Master Plan.

The college has provided almost no information about the bond.  I spent a lot of time searching the Collin College website – I even read all of the Board of Trustees’ minutes and presentations for the past year.  All I could find regarding the bond was minimal high-level information: no detailed analysis; no support for projected costs, estimates of the tax impact of the bond’s debt service, or impact of the massive facility expansion on future operating costs of the college. . . . 

The college appears to be relying on the argument that Collin County is projected to grow a lot, so we need to build a lot of facilities and spend all this tax money. 

Mike Giles, a McKinney resident and self-described “great fan of the college,” isn’t only concerned that Collin College’s proposed bond is “a huge blank check for $600 million with absolutely no taxpayer checks and balances.” He’s frustrated that college officials downplay the 12-cent tax rate increase that property owners could face if Proposition 1 passes.

Officials say its inclusion in the ballot language is just a formality required by law. “However, as we’ve indicated repeatedly, the college expects little or no impact on the overall tax rate as a result of the issuance of the bonds,” said the district’s Chief Public Relations Officer Tom Delamater.

The college’s expectations about the future aren’t enough to convince all Collin County residents.

McKinney homeowner and taxpayer Brian Newman has talked with many of his neighbors who share his concerns about the enormous spending and taxing authority the bond proposition gives college trustees without any further oversight by voters. “When government starts spending, taxes go up,” said Newman.

The college district has already raised property tax burdens on existing property owners by 19.8 percent over that past five years by adopting rates higher than the effective tax rate.

And in a year in which both Democrats and Republicans have been weighing in on some nominally nonpartisan May local elections, the Collin County Republican Party surveyed its precinct chairs and found that 77 percent of respondents oppose the Collin College bond proposition.

Most media coverage – what there’s been – and marketing of the proposition has been pro-bond, relying almost exclusively on comments from the college’s Board of Trustees who proposed the bond and from District President Neil Matkin.

Local news outlet Community Impact, for example, has written about the proposal several times since trustees voted in September 2016 to call for the $600 million bond election. Yet their only sources are college officials, and they only once referenced any opposition to the bond – from trustee Mac Hendricks, who voted against the bond proposal saying it was too much all at once:

“I’ve been on the board 15 years, and I’m very progressive,” Hendricks said. “We’ve done well and moved forward, but [$600 million is a lot of money] and a year ago we paid off a $13 million bond.

Many voters say they agree with Hendricks and would support a smaller bond package, or a series of packages, that included more specifics about how the money would be spent.

The April 2017 issue of the Allen Image featured an interview with Matkin about the bond and Master Plan that was actually written by a public relations writer at Collin College, Heather Darrow.

The cover of the college’s Spring 2017 Connection newsletter also featured stories promoting the trustees’ Master Plan and their $600 million bond package to pay for it. What’s not in the newsletter is any mention of the 12-cent tax rate hike that the bond proposition authorizes.

The newsletter was mailed in April to 337,927 Collin County households, according to Delamater, who said that, at the time of publication, the college didn’t have the actual ballot language. But Delamater also said disclosure of the tax hike authority is required by state law, meaning college officials knew it would have to be included in the ballot language.

At least the bond’s $600 million price tag (sans interest) was mentioned – once – in the college’s mailer. That’s once more than in marketing materials produced by pro-bond PAC Citizens For Collin College. The PAC’s push cards, website, and Facebook page promoting a YES vote on the bond don’t mention the $600 million in debt-financed spending authorized by that vote.

The PAC reported collecting $10,487 from individual and corporate donors as of April 6, including $2,500 from CORE Construction, “the third-largest school builder in the nation;” $2,000 from Huckabee & Associates, an architectural firm specializing in school design; $1,500 from structural engineering company AG&E Structural Engenuity; and $1,000 from Estes, McClure & Associates, a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering and design firm.

After approving the bond issue, trustees also hand-picked a group of “community leaders and volunteers” called the Committee of 100 to help the college promote passage of the bond and “communicate the need for the Master Plan between now and the May 6 election date.”

At a Collin College Board of Trustees meeting in March, Committee of 100 co-chair David McCall – who referred to himself as the co-chair of the “Collin College Bond Package Committee” – told trustees that there was “lots of enthusiasm and very little controversy” surrounding the bond proposition. McCall – a $1,000 contributor to the pro-bond PAC – added that there was “no known organized opposition” to the bond.

That may change at the college’s April 25 Board of Trustees Meeting. A number of Collin County residents say they plan to attend the meeting and voice their concerns about the trustees’ bond proposition – and the process by which the college has produced and promoted it and the underlying Master Plan.

An issue that’s made it hard for residents to express their concerns about the bond package – and contributed to a lack of trust – is the fact that the elected trustees’ contact information is not publicly available on the college’s website.

In response to an April 6 request from Empower Texans’ Metroplex Bureau, Board Chairman Dr. Bob Collins said on April 7 that the college will “work to get a resolution to making all the trustee’s contact information easily available and hopefully have a solution shortly.” As of April 24 – the start of early voting on the bond proposition – that hasn’t yet happened.

In the meantime, Texas Scorecard has twice published trustees’ email addresses. We’re including them again below:

Also raising questions about accountability is the trustees’ approval to buy a $10.7 million property for one of the facilities included in the Master Plan – before voters have even had a chance to weigh in on the bond proposition.

At the March board meeting where the land purchase was approved, one trustee publicly acknowledged that building plans will go forward regardless of whether Collin County voters approve the May bond:

“Whether the bond passes or not, we will be moving forward with the master plan,” trustee Adrian Rodriguez said.

Perhaps most troubling to district constituents is how dismissive college officials are of their concerns, with trustees saying that voters should simply “trust us” with a $600 million blank check and “vote us out” if they don’t like how trustees spend their money. These are the same constituents whose taxes would pay for that blank check – and who will be voting on May 6.

As Dillavou summed up, “This is the most ridiculous situation I can imagine. If they can’t do better than that, this bond needs to be defeated.”

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.