The Tithes That Bind?

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.

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.

A review of the district's budget summary for the year revealed nothing to indicate the existence of that money. Charles Dupre, associate superintendent of business and finance, explains that the cash gradually built up from funds left over from various projects through the years. Dupre says he knew about the special fund when the district began looking at the church purchase -- some of the school trustees say nobody informed them of it until well after the questioning of financing came up.

After the vote, Don Hooper, of course, professed to know nothing about nothing. "I am an innocent bystander. I had nothing to do with the church deal," he told the Fort Bend/Southwest Sun newspaper. "They kept me out of it totally."

Pastor Elrod says Hooper left the room during building committee discussions about the district and the church transaction, and that the superintendent hasn't so much as uttered a word on the subject to him.

Hooper also didn't utter any words to the Houston Press. He's president of the American Association of School Administrators this year, and was reported to be traveling in Europe and unavailable for comment.

School board trustee Steve Smelley, who seconded the motion to buy the church, could not be reached for comment. He was also described by Elrod as having a previous association with First Colony Church.

The formalities of a final closing on the purchase were to come last Thursday. However, dissenting board member Cynthia Knox and board president Jane Clarke still have unanswered concerns, many of them centered on the seemingly sudden discovery of $10 million in a district account.

"After we voted to purchase the building, we were told that the administration was looking for ways to pay for the building. Then the next thing I knew, we were told that these pre-1987 bonds would be available," Clarke says. She notes that it is "poor business" to commit to a major purchase without knowing the source of funding at the time.

"If this were truly well thought out, the administration would be saying, 'This is the property proposed; this is why we need it; here is proof that this is the most suitable property, and this is how we're going to pay for it,' " Clarke says.

Knox challenges the estimate of $6 million to build an annex, saying there was never any real information on that option. Petros says it came from a request to a district architect, and that the price to build an annex is probably even higher now.

Area school districts have purchased buildings owned by businesses and churches in the past, although the First Colony acquisition is more than twice as high as those made by other districts in recent years.

After the Press filed an open records request to look into the deal, the district administration added a special supplement to the board members' agenda material -- answers to "frequently asked questions" about the church purchase.

The Houston chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State hasn't closely examined the transaction but says it raises troubling issues.

"A sweetheart deal is the nicest thing we can say about it. There's something that the taxpayers need to look at," says group president Charlotte Coffelt. "I think there are questions that the school district needs to answer to assure them that this is not a behind-the-scenes deal."

Pastor Elrod insists that it is good for the district and his church: "Frankly, I think [the administration is] going to make a great neighbor."

He and the congregation can be optimistic. Not long after the preliminary purchase agreement, First Colony Church moved forward on its long-awaited building project.

Members -- even FBISD taxpayers in general -- can monitor the progress on the special Internet construction "cam" trained on what will be a religious complex to rise on a 15-acre tract elsewhere in First Colony.

With a $4.25 million infusion of school district cash and the apparent ability to finance the building of a $12 million complex, it would seem that the church could afford rent in the interim. That's hardly the case in this transaction.

The contract states that as "an inducement" to get the church to sell to the district, First Colony Church of Christ will continue to share sections of the facility with FBISD. It gets use of the sanctuary, some meeting rooms and related office space from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays and Tuesdays and on Wednesday nights -- as well as "on such other dates and such other times as parties mutually agree in writing." Already agreed to are special religious days such as Christmas Eve.

Officials of the church and FBISD refer to it as both a rental agreement and lease-back deal, but a close read shows the only fee to be paid by the church is a prorated portion of the utility costs.

The virtual rent-free deal will last through June 30, 2002, which just happens to be Hooper's last official day with the Fort Bend school district.

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