The Tithes That Bind?

Fort Bend ISD snaps up the former school superintendent's church for a mere $4.25 million

By late last year, First Colony Church of Christ had a looming crisis brought on by sheer success. The church had outgrown its 15-year-old place of worship in Sugar Land. Attendance had climbed from around 100 to more than 1,200 in a facility built to accommodate half that many.

Executive Minister Hal Elrod and the board of elders had started planning to relocate about three years ago, but the biggest problem remained unsolved: Few buyers had shown interest in purchasing the existing church on Sweetwater Boulevard. One other religious group had wanted the facility, but that hope vanished after months of efforts to obtain financing fell through.

Then a seeming miracle happened. A new suitor for the church building had shown up: the Fort Bend Independent School District, the kind of taxpayer-flush governmental entity that could certainly make good on its intentions financially.

FBISD administrators say their former leader's church is needed for district expansion.
Deron Neblett
FBISD administrators say their former leader's church is needed for district expansion.

Prayers of relief went up from the congregation, and among them was surely the church's own Don Hooper. He's reported to be the father-in-law of the First Colony Church youth minister, and a member of the church's building committee.

At the time, Hooper also had another job -- he's been FBISD superintendent of schools for the past five years.

Since arriving from the top executive post of Galena Park schools, Hooper has enjoyed an especially good rapport with an FBISD school board majority. That's despite concerns by some parents that the district's apparent embrace of Christian evangelical activism had alienated families of other religious faiths [see "Gentleman's Agreement," by Margaret Downing, November 30].

There were parent complaints that various FBISD schools were using the official PA system to promote on-campus Pole Prayer Rallies and sectarian groups such as the Jars of Clay Christian club. Reports came in that personnel at assorted schools had displayed religious posters in hallways and required Jewish students to submit written excuses for time off for Yom Kippur and other religious holidays, unlike those involved in Christian observances.

Hooper, a devoted member of First Colony Church of Christ -- its Web site emphasizes "Evangelizing God's World" -- developed a policy on the separation of church and state last year. The superintendent drafted a formal policy on the issue, one approved by the same school board that had earlier voted to support organized prayer in school.

And when the 52-year-old Hooper decided to retire early this year, the board made sure he wouldn't leave empty-handed. Trustees approved a deal that pays him his regular salary, reported to be more than $225,000, while he takes a one-year leave of absence.

Hooper's good fortune may have been matched only by that of his church. By January, FBISD administrators were already making preliminary plans to purchase First Colony Church of Christ.

Officials say only that when the other church failed to come up with the money to buy First Colony's building, an elder put in a call to Lee Petros, FBISD's superintendent of facilities and planning.

The district itself, in the midst of new residential development, faced growing pains. Its 60,000-square-foot administration building was becoming cramped. A 1998 district study had recommended the logical -- FBISD could simply build an annex on property the district already owned, land conveniently located adjacent to the existing district headquarters.

There were no indications of any urgency by the district for such an expansion, although the eventual contract documents for the church would boldly proclaim, "Time is of the essence in this agreement."

More than a mile from the district administration building, the 40,000-square-foot church is on five acres adjacent to Bullhead Bayou. Initial estimates of the church's value were from $3.5 million to $5 million.

District officials compared that to general estimates of $6 million if FBISD built its own annex, although there were several other costs cited involved in trying to transform a 15-year-old church into an office building for a school district. Among those were nearly $40,000 to repair the roof and gutters, and almost $80,000 to install an elevator and electric doors to make it accessible for the disabled, and thousands of dollars more to retrofit the church with connections for office lighting and phone and electrical hookups. There's also the matter of removing the steeple and baptistery.

An appraisal came in matching the initial price range, while noting that the market was fairly restricted for this type of building. Its location in a residentially zoned area means it isn't available for traditionally higher-priced uses like commercial offices or retail sales. Even special event operators or another church would have to seek a special use permit. Otherwise, buyers were generally limited to educational institutions.

Despite that situation, negotiations were hardly tough -- and certainly not prolonged.

On February 13 the district offered the church $4 million. Pastor Elrod countered with an asking price of $4.25 million cash. And the deal was done, pending solution to one more sticky problem: how the district was going to afford its new church.

Administrators advised them of the possibility of borrowing the money and hedging that loan on the prospects of voter approval of a future bond election. Instead, the board beheld another seeming miracle of faith: The district discovered a stash of $10 million in interest on bond funds dating back to before 1987.

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