Having drawn the ire of Gov. Greg Abbott for spending $20 million on a sports and learning complex featuring a water park, the La Joya Independent School District is now asking taxpayers to shoulder a $550,000 operating loss incurred by the complex and the district’s golf course in the last fiscal year.
One of the poorest school districts in Texas, La Joya, west of Mission in the southern tip of the state, is mostly funded with so-called Robin Hood recapture money. The district received more than $234 million from the state and nearly $26 million in federal money, which together made up almost 85 percent of the district budget for the fiscal year that ended in August, according to the district’s annual financial report.
Abbott took note. “Now you know why it’s hard to get the Legislature to pony up more money for our schools,” he wrote on Twitter on Sept. 7. On Dec. 16, he tweeted that “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.”
The La Joya water park is one of the reasons that many school officials think Robin Hood must be reformed, Nicole Conley Johnson, head of business and operations for the Austin school district, told KXAN-TV in December.
“This just sort of speaks to the fact that the formula doesn’t reflect realities,” Johnson said, “and I would say Austin — we are the sort of face of why this doesn’t make sense.”
School officials in La Joya, which educates about 30,000 students with a teaching and administrative staff of 4,400, have defended the district’s decision to pay for the rather extravagant facility out of its general fund. Assistant Superintendent Alfredo Vela, in a recent Mission Progress Times story, touted the outside revenue the complex generated during the summer.
“How can we place a price tag on our students?” school board member Espie Ochoa told the Progress Times. “I would love for the governor to come and visit our learning complex, and for him to see firsthand the dynamics and the opportunities it’s brought for our students and staff.”
According to the financial report (please see p. 76), however, the sports and learning center lost $249,839 in the last fiscal year. Howling Trails, the district’s adjacent golf course, lost $301,701 in the same period.
The financial report does not show revenue projections for the learning center and golf course. Vela, the district’s head of administration and finance, did not respond to The Texas Monitor’s request for comment by the time this story was posted.
La Joya opened the complex in early April. First proposed at a cost of $16.4 million in 2014, the project was delayed by a contractor default and was completed for about $20 million.
The complex includes a $10 million swimming pool, a $2 million planetarium, a “state-of-the-art” technology lab as well as the public water park and golf course. The project also included $2.5 million for new soccer fields and tennis courts nearby.
It is the only complex of its kind financed by a public school district in Texas.
Less than two weeks after the park opened, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who chairs the Property Tax Committee and sits on the education and finance committees, tweeted, “It was mentioned during the school finance commission about La Jolla ISD opening a water park. I commented that this is one more waterpark than Texas needs and ISDs don’t need to be in the water park business!”
Despite the criticisms, no one has filed any legislation to prevent projects like La Joya’s. “I’m sure it’s going to come up,” state Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr., D-Palmview, told the Progress Times.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].