$5B in debt before Texas voters; some asks raise questions

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The Peaster Greyhounds need a stadium to play football in and the district is rolling the dice that taxpayers will sign off on $9.5 million in debt to make it happen.

It will be the district’s first high school football team. But the cost is a tall order in a district that defaulted on a bond payment in 2014.  

The high school’s enrollment is around 300 and the overall enrollment of 1,057 has dipped by 17 students since 2011.

Eight of the district’s top ten taxpayers are oil and gas operations, an on-again, off-again economy.

Peaster Superintendent Matt Adams did not return a call, but explained the issue in March to the Weatherford Democrat, a local newspaper.

“For the last two years we’ve been looking at it as we continue to grow and have more students coming in,” Adams said. “We’re trying to have some things in place to be able to offer more students more opportunities.”

If the bond is passed, the money will also go to renovating a gym, a new eight-lane track, and to buy three new buses.

Peaster is nothing, though, in terms of spending.

In just days, public school districts in Texas will ask local voters to approve $5 billion in bonds for everything from iPads for students to dedicated locker rooms for girl’s wrestling.

Some of the districts asking for taxpayer cash have not yet spent money approved from bond measures going back several years.  Most are in the middle of spending from other bond measures.  In some cases, the public approval is being sought in districts with dwindling enrollment.

Twelve of the 48 measures on the May 6 ballot around the state come in districts where enrollment has dropped and six of those districts have seen double-digit plummets.

Floydada ISD in West Texas, for example, has lost 22 percent of its student body since 2005 and is asking voters to approve $44.7 million for a new campus, upgraded athletic facilities — including new tennis courts — and a new building for its buses.

School enrollment in Texas increased 13.1 percent between 2005 and 2015, but even in small districts with limited resources, residents vote for increased taxes in the name of schools, gyms and garages.

“All these issues are identified before a bond goes before the voters,” said Joe Smith, former superintendent at Hudson Independent School District in East Texas. “And that’s why the voters vote for it. I could say that the district is doing what the voters want in that case.”

Voters rarely show restraint when pitched a project that would favor education. Since 2013, voters have approved bond measures at a 78 percent rate, according to the state.

Districts groaning under growth rates that in some places exceed 100 percent make the bonds necessary.

They also give rise to resistance, noted Smith: “There are some voters who just won’t approve any bond proposal,” he said.

Take Don Zimmerman, former Austin City Council member who is currently crusading against Rock Rock ISD’s $572 million bond proposal.

“I am an enemy of the government school monopoly,” Zimmerman said.

This year’s heavyweight bond proposal is a $737 million allotment in Lewisville, where three years ago the district opened a $28 million natatorium and last year handed out $10.5 million in raises.

The number of employees in the district has increased 16 percent since 2007, which enrollment has increased 9 percent.

The Lewisville ISD is where Frank Vaughn has lived for nearly three decades. He’s voted for LISD bond measures in the past.

In the last several years, though, he’s seen too many frills added into the measures for his taste. There are press box improvements at the stadiums, a new indoor sports facility, renovations to theaters, rainy day money for “renovations to possible academies” and a potential pot of money for another round of iPads for students and teachers.

“Many of these things are so vaguely worded,” Vaughn said. “But some of these are items that the district can afford already, it has a fund set aside. There’s good stuff in there and crap as well.”

Public school growth has created an ongoing and sometimes onerous public policy dialog over how to fund schools.

While the discussion often refers to meeting the needs of students and to providing the best education through tax revenue, there is another aspect to that debate: Athletics, performance centers and other non-academic offerings are also the subject of bond elections.

But rarely covered in funding discussions are the salaries of school administrators and staff. Between 2011 and 2016, school districts increased administrative ranks by 12 percent while pushing up the number of teachers by eight percent.

Average superintendent pay went up last year, too.

In May, Carroll ISD outside of Dallas will ask voters to approve $208 million in bonds. Superintendent David Faltys is being paid a base rate of $363,493 this year in the district of just over 8,200 students, a 38 percent raise over his pay of $262,000 in 2012.

The district did not return a call.

Voters in the Muenster ISD in North Texas approved $14 million in bonds in 2011, when the district had an enrollment of 470. This year, the district is asking for $2.4 million as the student body has increased by 31 students.

The money would go for technology, school buses and a new pay system for the school cafeteria. Voters last year turned down the district’s request for $3.2 million for the same items.

“We’ve tightened our belt as much as we can,” said Muenster Superintendent Steven Self. The funding formula for schools, a complicated convolution of math that ties together taxable property with number of students, “is only truly understood by a couple handfuls of people in the state,” Self said.

The bond proposal, he said, covers things the district simply cannot afford otherwise due to a dropping general fund balance. The only other way would be to take money away from teaching and administrative costs. As it stands, the district has hired 14 new teachers and four new administrators since 2011, with pay increases of four and eight percent, respectively.

“The main thing going up is salaries,” Self said. “If you have a stable group of teachers, which we do, their salaries are going to go up.”

To get this measure through, the district has pulled some items from the table, such as the upgrading of restrooms at the football stadium and new covered walkways.

There will probably never be a time that school districts feel fully funded, said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

“If we had a different accountability system, some of that money being spent on other things might make it back to the classroom,” Exter said. “It’s a matter of priorities.”

Contact Steve Miller at [email protected] or 832-303-9420.

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