Here’s how Harris County voted on a sales tax for school projects

It was the sixth time in three decades that Harris County voters were asked to approve a sales tax to help pay for school projects. But for the first time, the request came in the form of two questions on the ballot Tuesday:

  • Whether to continue the existing 1% sales tax.
  • Whether to try a different way of financing the projects, which would include the possibility of increasing property taxes.

As they’ve done the previous five times it’s been on the ballot since 1997, Harris County voters approved the tax — as well as the new funding mechanism.

In unofficial vote totals but with all 12 precincts reporting, Harris County voters overwhelmingly said yes to both questions:

  • 76.73% (1,520-461) voted yes on continuing the existing tax.
  • 73.37% (1,449-526) voted yes on new funding.

“Great county. Great support. Great future,” Roger Couch, superintendent of the Harris County School District, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email. “We are very appreciative to have both items approved by the citizens.”

Shane Lipp, the Harris County Board of Education chairman and District 1 representative, told the L-E via email, “I’m grateful to the citizens of Harris County for their support of our students and district as we move forward with continual improvement.”

Only 8.4% of Harris County’s 23,804 registered voters cast a ballot on those two questions

Sherrail Jarrett, the Harris County elections supervisor, said she will certify the results Thursday afternoon.

An Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, commonly called an ESPLOST, provides school districts a way to raise money for school improvements in addition to property taxes, loans and grants. ESPLOST money can be used for capital projects, such as construction, renovation, buses and technology, or to pay off debt, but it can’t be used for operating expenses, such as salaries.

ESPLOSTs last for five years or until the requested amount of money is collected, whichever comes first.

Although the current ESPLOST is scheduled to continue through December 2021, the Harris County School District sought this approval now so planning and construction can be done earlier, decreasing the amount of inflation on the cost of the projects. This also allows the sales tax to continue without interruption, so the new ESPLOST will go into effect in January 2022. It will run through December 2026 or until $18 million is collected, whichever comes first.

The money will help pay for projects designed to accommodate the county’s growth, with 423 homes under construction and 246 proposed, Finney said during his presentation in August.

The projects include:

  • A new middle school
  • 16 additional classrooms at the high school
  • Four additional classrooms at Creekside Schools (grades 5-6)
  • New buses
  • Technology upgrades
  • Other unspecified capital projects, such as HVAC systems, kitchen equipment, flooring, painting, paving, grading and roofing.

Approval of the second question on the ballot gave the school board the authority to increase property taxes to pay off long-term construction bonds.

If the projects end up costing less than estimated, the board might not have to increase property taxes, HCSD spokeswoman Rachel Crumbley told the Ledger-Enquirer.

If the school board raises the property tax millage rate to pay off the bond, the rate will be rolled back when the debt is paid, Finney told the L-E.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.