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The $1.2 billion bond approved by Fort Bend Independent School District voters last May is already projected to run $133 million over budget — a predicament that shocked trustees who said Monday that they were kept in the dark about the shortfall for too long.

District officials said multiple factors — including unexpectedly high construction cost inflation, labor shortages and internal leadership changes — have weighed on Fort Bend’s record-breaking bond, which voters approved by a roughly 2-to-1 margin last year. Fort Bend leaders planned to construct two new campuses, rebuild three aging schools and spend about $600 million on upgrades at campuses throughout the district through the bond.

Dan Bankhead, Fort Bend’s executive director of design and construction, said district leaders will try to find ways to cut project costs, such as using cheaper materials than originally planned.

However, the district ultimately could scale back its projects or attempt to pass another bond for more funding — though several trustees said they do not want to ask taxpayers for more money.

“I have a major problem being only (nine) months after this bond has passed, and we’re already projecting it to be that much over budget,” Trustee David Hamilton said.

Fort Bend Independent School District Trustee David Hamilton listens during a school board meeting.
Fort Bend Independent School District Trustee David Hamilton listens during a school board meeting Dec. 11, 2023, in Sugar Land. (Abdelraoufsinno file photo / Annie Mulligan)

The $1.2 billion bond marked the largest investment in school construction and renovations in the history of Fort Bend, which serves about 80,000 students and ranks as the Houston region’s fourth-largest district.

At a school board meeting Monday, several trustees pressed district administrators about what caused the shortfall, who exactly bore responsibility for the errant initial projections and the timeline for disclosing concerns about the bond budget.

Deputy Superintendent Steven Bassett said Fort Bend administrators received information about the wayward budget projections in September and could have adjusted the bond budget in November, but they didn’t feel they had to “pull the fire alarm.”

“The fact is that we didn't do that,” Bassett said. “We received information from a consultant, and the information was not acted on. … We're owning it, I’m owning it.”

Bankhead, who started in his role in November, noted Fort Bend has employed three chief operations officers in the last two years. Several administration members also blamed an unnamed district official no longer working in the district for not bringing the projected high costs to board members sooner.

“It seems like a lot of passive voice — ‘This stuff has happened’ — (and) not a whole lot of ownership of who messed up,” Hamilton said.

The quandary further muddles the December 2023 departure of former superintendent, Christie Whitbeck, who alleged she was forced to retire as several trustees coordinated to get her fired.

Whitbeck’s unexpected resignation exposed a messy rift between trustees. Board President Judy Dae offered minimal comments in response to Whitbeck’s claims, prompting many community members to call for increased transparency. A few weeks after Whitbeck announced her retirement, Hamilton said on The Michael Berry Show that the superintendent “consistently disrespected the school board” and “was not moving the ball forward (academically) with the urgency I wanted to see.”

Whitbeck did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening.

The bond budget shortfall ranks among the first major issues new Superintendent Marc Smith will confront after being selected by the board in December, just two weeks after Whitbeck’s rocky exit. Smith, who previously served as Duncanville Independent School District’s superintendent, did not speak at length about the projected shortfall Monday.

School districts traditionally outline projects and the expected cost for many bigger projects when asking voters to approve a school bond. The plans are typically developed alongside a committee of local residents. Fort Bend followed these practices last year.

However, voters are not approving specific construction or spending plans when they cast their ballot for a school bond. Rather, they are merely authorizing the school district to issue bonds — and in some cases, raise the local property tax rate — needed to raise the money for projects. As a result, Fort Bend leaders could change or scale back their plans for the bond without needing voter approval.

The district also could ask voters to authorize more financing for bond projects, though Trustee Angie Hanan said she is concerned about building trust with the public moving forward.

“If we’re gonna go back to the taxpayers, somewhere in the future, my ask is that we have gone above and beyond everywhere possible, even if it means delaying some projects,” Hanan said.

Trustees asked district administrators Monday to give them monthly updates on the bond and its expected costs.

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Miranda Dunlap is a reporter covering K-12 schools across the eight-county Greater Houston region. A native Michigander, Miranda studied political science pre-law and journalism at Michigan State University....