Houston legislator will try to outlaw future tax-funded water parks

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waterslide

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt intends to file a bill that would prevent a public school district from using general fund money for a project like the $20 million water park and learning center built by one of the poorest school districts in the state.

Bettencourt, R-Houston, reacting to a story by The Texas Monitor Friday, said he had not yet worked out the language, but that his bill will make clear that school districts will not be allowed to spend tax money on a extravagances not directly tied to education.

The La Joya district in South Texas, which educates about 30,000 children, opened its Sports & Learning Complex in April. In addition to the water park with three slides, the complex includes a swimming pool, planetarium and technology lab.

As The Texas Monitor reported, the water park and the district’s golf course lost $550,000 in the last fiscal year — a loss of funds made up with tax dollars.

Gov. Greg Abbott has twice called out the district on Twitter, writing on Dec. 16, “The State will add more funding for education. But it won’t fund water park projects like this. We will invest in the teachers who educate students.”

Bettencourt, who sits on the Senate’s finance and education committees, said the state currently has no mechanism to block or review projects like this.

Texas school districts often come under fire for their luxurious and expensive football stadiums, like Katy’s $70.3 million Legacy Stadium. But those facilities are built with bonds that must be approved in a general election by voters.

And while the La Joya board members are beholden to local taxpayers, almost all of the district’s annual operating costs are covered by the state’s recapture and redistribution system of school finance, often referred to as the Robin Hood system.

In the year the water park complex was completed, $260 million or 85 percent of the district budget was paid for with state and federal taxes, more than $234 million of that from the state alone.

In a legislative session when the state’s top officials, including Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, agree that fixing Robin Hood is a priority, how districts spend money cannot go unaddressed, Bettencourt said.

“We cannot have school districts spending their extra cash on water parks,” he said. “We want school districts in the business of educating children, not in the entertainment venue business.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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