By Bruce Felps, editor of the East Dallas Times

Stonewall Jackson Elementary School, near the border of the M Streets-Greenland Hills neighborhood, recently took an academic rating hit from the Texas Education Agency.

TEA dropped Stonewall’s rating from “exemplary” to “acceptable,” a drop of two rungs in the course of one school year.

The decline could change the perception of prospective homebuyers with elementary school-age children when considering a home within the Stonewall attendance zone. Then again, the resale market for existing homes might remain business as usual.

So, which factor became reality so far?

Scott Carlson, a 30-year veteran of East Dallas residential real estate, said any market evidence just two months after the TEA announced its analysis would be strictly anecdotal.

“Unless you went into MLS, looked at sales stats, and called buyers to see if the rating played any role in their decision there’s no way to know. Bottom line is you can’t do that,” he said. “I don’t think it really matters anyway. Stonewall and Lakewood [Elementary in the adjacent attendance zone to the east] are our two most desired elementary schools.”

Carlson’s assessment of the rating drop not mattering rings true in the eyes of the Dallas Central Appraisal District, the agency that ascribes home valuations for taxation purposes.

Cheryl Jordan, community relations spokeswoman for DCAD, said appraisers ignore buyers’ reasoning and look only at resale prices in a given area.

“We don’t analyze the market, we reflect its activity, past-tense,” she said. “We look at the bottom line not why it happened.”

Darren Dattalo, a real estate agent who sits on the Lower Greenville Neighborhood Association board of directors, wrote in an e-mail message that the market has yet to react to TEA’s action.

“I believe it’s far too soon to see a statistical impact to this. Ask again in a year and we’ll have enough data to really tell,” he wrote. “Anecdotally speaking, the word is out and buyers are talking. But buyers and agents who know the area also know the whole story and know that Stonewall is just as good as it ever was. And while bad news travels faster than good news, the truth will make itself known.”

Olivia Henderson, Stonewall’s principal, understandably echoed Dattalo’s assertion that Stonewall remains an exemplary school despite the state’s findings. TEA, she explained in a letter to parents originally published in the Stonewall PTA newsletter, said the agency simply changed its rating matrix.

“According to the TEA’s testing program, 2011 was the year that all students would be tested on grade level and that all student test scores would count. This included our small group of Deaf Education students who have previously taken a modified version of the TAKS test. This is the first year that the state has aggregated their scores with the general education population,” she wrote.

Prospective buyers, when considering a home in a given school attendance zone, might be better served discussing the school with PTA members rather than listening to a state agency. The neighborhood level, in this case, likely matters more than the prevailing bureaucratic winds.

Bruce Felps owns and operates East Dallas Times.We are happy to have him as a Contributor to CandysDirt. Even better: he’s a product of the Dallas ISD, and he turned out just fine. But don’t tell that to his shrink.

 

Recall the story of Al and Erin Hill? A source now tells me that major changes have been made in the Hill household over there on Bordeaux. Last week, according to sources, employees were told they would be paid until the end of the month, and then their services would no longer be needed. And the Hills reportedly said they would be moving, but they did not say where or when. All employees have been paid in full, graciously thanked, and given letters of recommendation, though rumor has it the nanny brigade was downsized months ago.

This could have nothing to do with it, but in early April, Al G. Hill III, descendant of legendary oilman H.L. Hunt, and  his wife, Erin Nance Hill, were indicted on several felony counts of mortgage fraud.

A grand jury returned three counts of making a false statement to obtain  property or credit and one count of securing execution of a document by  deception against Al,  age 40. His wife, Erin, age 38, was also charged with  two counts of making a false statement and one of securing execution of a  document by deception.

The charges centered on the Hills obtaining a loan for more than $200,000  from OmniAmerican Bank in 2009 by claiming to be sole owners of their Highland  Park home, and allegedly falsifying his income and her assets. Al, for example, claimed a monthly income of $54,341 while Erin claimed to  have more than $100,000 in a bank account.

According to the Dallas Central Appraisal District website, the couple owns  only 20 percent of their $1.9 million home on Bordeaux. The majority interest is owned by the  Albert Hill Trust, whose beneficiary is Al III’s father, Al Hill Jr. And of course father and son have been embroiled in a long, sad, bitter civil suit for several years over  the estate, Al III claiming mismanagement and wanting more millions. Not sure yet what has become of the lawsuit, but we do wish the Hills the best.

 

May means great weather, less sneezing, and, in North Texas Real Estate parlance, time to grit our teeth over home appraisals. Property tax appraisals went out Friday, so this coming week we should be getting the hard, cold news about property taxes. Dallas rates have gone up. Property values have gone down. Will the Appraisal District reflect this in our bills or look the other way to sop up much-needed revenue?

Do you anticipate your property taxes will go up or down?

Couple things: Jim Schutze over at the Dallas Observer had an interesting article this week on taxes, and the mayoral candidate’s rhetoric that we need to expand the business tax base in Dallas. For what? (To lower our property taxes is the assumption, I guess.) Schutze was another journalist getting hoarse shouting, for the 300,000th time, the inequity that the property tax burden in Texas weighs on the shoulders of homeowners rather than commercial property — I agree:

“What is this crap about the importance of attracting more businesses to the city? They throw it out like a line from the Bible or something — especially mayoral candidates Mike Rawlings and Ron Natinsky. Got to “grow that tax base.” Only way we can grow that tax base is by attracting more businesses, they say.”

The real growth in this city in the last 10 years, he says, has been in residential, which has risen almost 65 percent. Commercial real estate values are up only 31 percent. In 2000, he says, residential was 40 percent of the total tax base. In 2010, it was 47 percent.

“Part of the problem with commercial, of course is that the values at which commercial properties are taxed are often substantially below market values. For whatever reasons (and I think I know what some of them are), the Dallas Central Appraisal District seems to like to low ball commercial values.”

I have long wondered why the tax base has not improved from the flourishing, expanding downtown. The reason is that commercial real estate pays less in taxes. Some argue they should, because businesses use fewer city services — which is news to me. Last time I looked, business created way more waste. But apparently this year, commercial is going to see rates go up.

According to the Dallas County Appraisal District, about 12 percent of residential property values will increase this year, very similar to last year,  according to spokesperson Cheryl Jordan via the Dallas Morning News. But oh boy get ready: more commercial properties will increase in value this year than last. Last year, 4,500 commercial properties had value increases, and this year that number will jump to 22,135.

DCAD anticipates just 23 percent of residential properties will lose value, compared with 34 percent last year.

So you know what that means: our Tax Doctor is back! Tiffany Hamil Mackey will be here to answer your questions as you get your tax bill. I was talking to her last night about what she thinks is coming down the pike, and she thinks the city may decrease land values while increasing improvements to keep appraisals the same. In other words, if your property is valued at $500,000 with $100,000 on improvement and $400,000 on land value, she thinks that they will reduce land to $200,000, but increase improvement value to $300,000 to preserve revenue. This means that the total value of your home goes unchanged, but suddenly your improvement just increased in value 300% in one year?!??! Who’s playing games here?¬† She‚Äôs already noticed whole blocks of areas in Preston Hollow subject to this exact situation.

Even if your taxes have stayed the same, Tiffany says you should fight. So get ready, the Tax Doctor is IN!

This is why it probably pays to subscribe to the Dallas Morning News, who is reporting that Al G. Hill III, descendant of legendary oilman H.L. Hunt, and his wife, Erin Nance Hill, were indicted last week on several felony counts of mortgage fraud.

A grand jury returned three counts of making a false statement to obtain property or credit and one count of securing execution of a document by deception against Al,  age 40. His wife, Erin, age 38, was also charged with two counts of making a false statement and one of securing execution of a document by deception.

This centers on the Hills obtaining a loan for more than $200,000 from OmniAmerican Bank in 2009 by claiming to be sole owners of their Highland Park home, falsifying his income and her assets. Al, for example, claimed a monthly income of $54,341 while Erin claimed to have more than $100,000 in a bank account.

According to the Dallas Central Appraisal District website, the couple owns only 20 percent of their $1.9 million home on Bordeaux. The majority interest is owned by the Albert Hill Trust, whose beneficiary is Al III’s father, Al Hill Jr. And of course father and son have been embroiled in a long, sad, bitter civil suit for several years over the estate, Al III claiming mismanagement and wanting more millions. A confidential source tells me the Hills have pared down their lifestyle somewhat: whereas Erin used to have a nanny for each child and a cook, there is now a house manager who also tends the children, two housekeepers and gardeners. There was a settlement last spring, but last week, Al III filed an appeal in federal court, which the News apparently found.

Mortgage fraud ain’t no laughing manner — you don’t lie or fib on loan applications. The charges are first-degree felonies, with a punishment range of probation or five years to life in the penitentiary.

It is time to dig out an interview I did with Al, Jr. last spring after the settlement. This story is developing.