By Michelle Smith, Sept. 7, 2014, www.TribTalk.org
We hear a lot about local debt in Texas. What we don’t hear are the reasons fast-growing school districts are being asked to shoulder the burden of it in the face of inadequate state funding.
Due in large part to our state’s pro-business economic climate, Texas welcomes on average 1,000 new residents every day. This population growth means ever-increasing demands on our infrastructure. Cities and counties build roads and provide basic services. School districts educate new students, provide appropriate learning environments and ensure adequate safety.
In a perfect world, population growth would be equally distributed across the state. In reality, the majority of new Texans are drawn to the suburbs of Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio. This puts a disproportionate strain on approximately 85 school districts that are called “fast growth” or “destination districts. They’re currently taking on an astonishing 80 percent of all new Texas students.
Frisco ISD, recently rated by Movoto Real Estate as the no. 1 mid-sized city to move to in the United States, currently adds over 3,500 new students each year and will need to build at least 14 new campuses over the next seven years. Prosper ISD began the 2003-04 school year with 1,431 students and is expected to have 30,000 students by 2024. Hutto ISD has grown 200 percent in the past 10 years.
These destination districts are tasked with educating their current students while expertly planning for future growth. In the short term, they may choose to utilize class-size waivers or portable buildings. Ultimately, they simply must build more schools, and their local voters have repeatedly given them permission to do so.
If a community is rapidly growing — and bringing in additional property tax revenue — why do local tax rates continue to rise? There are several important reasons. In addition to trying to stay ahead of student enrollment growth, many fast growth districts are “rooftop,” or residential, districts that are unable to generate as much property tax revenue as districts that have significant commercial growth. The main reasons, however, are the state’s decreased financial support for facilities and its prohibition against local communities building more schools if they have reached a certain tax rate — even if a school district is still taking in a significant number of students.
Opportunities for legislative solutions abound. But some groups choose to compound the problem by convincing voters to “just say no” to new school buildings. These critics hide behind the veil of increased transparency, while their ultimate goal is to prevent authorization of funding for needed schools. While limiting local debt is a worthy objective, demonizing the very districts that attract growth does nothing to address the future needs of Texas.
Fast-growing school districts strongly support meaningful transparency, both at the state and local level. These districts host public forums, manage interactive websites and provide detailed written information about bond packages and proposed capital improvements. Many of our member districts are also recognized by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs for their outstanding (and voluntary) transparency efforts.
Meaningful transparency means taking the time to explain to voters what their community’s unique debt situation is and how a particular bond proposal will affect them. This education takes place before voters enter the voting booth because a ballot is the point of decision, not the point of education. Similarly, we would not expect to see a candidate’s full biography on the ballot. There is no policy statement, voting record or financial disclosure below candidates’ names. We rely on voters to educate themselves before entering the voting booth by talking to their neighbors, attending town hall meetings and reading the local newspaper.
The issues of local debt and transparency are complex and intertwined with a larger school finance discussion. Just last week, District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional, including the way the state funds local school facilities. Now is not the time for alarmist views regarding local debt but an opportunity for legislators to recognize that the current system increasingly requires local taxpayers to pick up the tab. Texas is an economic engine currently running at top speed. Will lawmakers fund that economic engine or will they continue to force the economic burden upon local taxpayers in fast growth areas?
Disclosure: The Fast Growth School Coalition is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.