Taxpayers across the state of Texas are the benefactors of La Joya Independent School District, which opened a $20 million “Sports and Learning Complex,” which features the first school-owned water park in the Lone Star State. After four years of planning and construction, the 90,00 sq.ft. water park is open to students and family of the school district, as well as residents from across the Rio Grande Valley. La Joya ISD Superintendent Dr. Alda Benavides said the news is “very exciting.” Besides the state-of-the-art water park, the project includes a 27-hole golf course, four tennis courts, a planetarium, a learning center, and a 21,993 sq. ft. natatorium for diving and swimming events. The school swimming team will no longer be forced to use the municipal pool of the McAllen suburb.
The golf course will be maintained by the La Joya ISD Maintenance Department.
According to the La Joya ISD website:
"This facility is the first of its kind from any school district in the region and state, the LJISD Sports and Learning Complex will offer multiple amenities for the students and community members of La Joya ISD. The Complex offers the latest State-of-the-Art technology, Full-dome Planetarium lessons that connect with the classroom curriculum, top-of-the-line Natatorium to host swimming and diving meets and competitions. The Water Park offers two body slides and one tube slide along with a lazy river for riders 48” and over, and two beautiful fun filled child and toddler water recreation areas."
According to the non-partisan Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texas spends 52 percent of its general revenue on K-16 education, which is the biggest item in the state budget. In the 2015-2016 academic year, public schools in Texas spent $64.8 billion on 5.3 million students. By dividing the line item by the number of students, the result is about $12,000 per student.
However, not all of that money goes directly to education. In the 2015-2016 school year, about 11 percent was spent to pay on debt. Also, state funding goes not only for classrooms but also for brand-new sports facilities. For example, some of the most expensive high school stadiums in the country are found in Texas, including: Legacy Stadium of Katy ISD ($70.3 million) and Berry Center of Cy-Fair ISD ($84 million). and Katy ISD’s Legacy Stadium at $70.3 million.
Funding also goes to administrative costs, which continue to increase. During the 1993 to 2015 period, teacher hires and student enrollment increased at their fastest rate ever, but the fastest growth was among non-teaching personnel. According to TPPF, if Texas public schools had limited the hiring of non-teaching staff to the rate of new student enrollment, there would have been enough savings to give every Texas public school teacher an average raise of $6,318.
A survey released by the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium found that 69 percent of Texas polled believe that “the state’s financial contribution to public education has declined significantly over most of the last six to eight years, leaving local taxpayers to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the burden.” However, TPPF asserted that the survey respondents are mistaken. According to the legislative budget board data for the most recent two-year budget cycle (2016-2017), state spending actually increased by about $5 billion from six years prior.
Noting that local property taxes are increasing in Texas, TPPF spokesperson Alicia Pierce explained that a generations-old state funding system means that revenue produced by local property taxes goes to the state education fund. The state of Texas then guarantees the difference, which is whatever district tax revenue says it is, according to the equalization scheme that was instituted in the 1940s.
According to the website of the Texas Education Agency (TEA):
“Chapter 41 of the Texas Education Code (TEC) makes provisions for certain school districts to share their local tax revenue with other school districts. For the purposes of the school finance system in Texas, districts are designated as either Chapter 41 or Chapter 42 districts. The relative wealth of the school district is measured in terms of the taxable value of property that lies within the school district borders divided by the number of students in weighted average daily attendance (WADA). Chapter 41’s provisions are sometimes referred to as the ‘share the wealth’ or ‘Robin Hood’ plan because districts subject to Chapter 41 of the TEC are required to share their wealth with other school districts. The funds that are distributed by Chapter 41 districts are ‘recaptured’ by the school finance system to assist with the financing of public education for all school districts.”
In an op-ed that appeared in the Houston Chronicle, TPPF’s Stephanie Matthews wrote:
“The real solution, of course, is for school districts to do better with what they have. Texans deserve more education for their money. La Joya’s water park serves as a reminder that Texans can support their public schools without endorsing every spending decision — and tax hike — made by school officials.”
By Texas standards, La Joya is a poor school district. However, one index of teaching costs shows that it is at the top of stack for how expensive it is to teach students. La Joya ISD has highest paid teachers in the Rio Grande Valley. In a town of 4,209, La Joya ISD provides education to approximately 30,000 students from within and near the city limits. Classes are small at La Joya ISD: first-grade classes average 15 students, according to the TEA. Nearly 94 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.
Because of Texas Education Code and a complicated formula, richer school districts subsidize districts which have greater numbers of disadvantaged students. For example, 77 percent of the Houston ISD students are economically disadvantaged. Because HISD is deemed to be rich, it surrenders as much as $300 million to districts such as La Joya ISD. According to the scheme, the state provides only 10 percent of HISD's budget, while the rest of the state sees an average of 35 percent. In the case of La Joya, the district gets 75 percent of its budget from the state. Local taxes make up almost all of the rest.
Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.