May 13, 2014 4:43 PM
Fast-growth school leaders say Combs isn’t telling the whole story on transparency
Combs says she’s promoting accurate information for voters; School districts argue she is over-simplifying
School district leaders in some of the most rapidly growing parts of Texas say the efforts of outgoing Texas Comptroller Susan Combs to provide more transparency for voters at the local level have been incomplete at best and misleading at worst. That’s why they’ve begun to push back against what she has billed as the “Tell the Truth Texas” project – not because anyone has a problem with transparency but because many superintendents don’t think Combs is actually promoting that.
As you may know, Combs has said she’s working to provide greater accountability for school districts by giving voters as much information as possible about the debt loads local school districts have on their books. Her office has gone through an extensive process of gathering school construction costs through public information requests and then placing them on this website, where those costs are averaged.
The Comptroller’s website says putting all this information in one place has been no small task:
“Since no single publicly accessible database contains all Texas school construction data, the Comptroller sent a public information request in October 2013 to each school district and charter operator in the state. Our agency requested information for all newly built campuses that opened between Jan. 1, 2007 and October 2013. Because we wanted to measure only the facility costs of campuses built from the ground up, we asked responders to exclude land, road and parking costs and itemize them separately where possible.”
In response, the Fast Growth School Coalition has now issued a report of its own called “Texas Schools Aren’t Average.” The report, which you can access here, stresses that “in Texas, decisions regarding public education are made by local communities, and since local communities are all different, that means decisions about educational programs and school buildings are going to vary considerably across the State of Texas.”
The coalition’s leadership, made up of superintendents, felt the Comptroller’s office was putting out information that lacked key context. The coalition argues that some of the most important things Combs is leaving out include climate and soil type, foundation types and local building codes and what people in communities say about the kind of buildings they want for their students.
Frenship ISD Superintendent David Vroonland told Quorum Report that, as he sees it, Comptroller Combs isn’t playing it straight with voters. “I don’t think she’s being transparent,” Vroonland said. “She’s over-simplifying things and that’s not transparent.” Taking exception to Combs’ “Tell the Truth” branding of the initiative, Vroonland said “she’s implying that we’re not telling the truth when that’s not the case at all.” The district he runs in the Lubbock area places its financial information on its website just like many others do, he noted.
Vroonland, who has served as a president of the Fast Growth group, said any even-handed evaluation of school debt across a state as diverse as Texas must take into account the vast differences associated with building facilities in each community. “We don’t have to do a lot of site prep in Lubbock,” he said. “The ground is pretty flat.” That would not be the case in school districts in the Hill Country, for example.
“Down on the coast they have to build for hurricane conditions,” he said. “We don’t deal with that in Lubbock but we have to think about wind load,” Vroonland said, referring to the adverse effects high winds can have on a structure.
Vroonland said the reason voters in rapidly growing areas this past Saturday overwhelmingly approved large – and in some cases quite controversial – school bond issues is those voters understand the need, plain and simple. About $3.8 billion in bonds passed in fast-growth districts. Only one fast-growth district lost on its bond issue. That was in the Tyler area.
Even the school bond issues in the Frisco and Arlington ISD’s, which had significant opposition from conservative groups like Empower Texans and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, sailed to passage. Arlington, by the way, is not considered a fast-growth school district.
“To me the true issue is that you have very little to no state support for managing growth,” Vroonland said. “They put it on the backs of the local taxpayer.” He pointed out that Gov. Perry, to his credit, is constantly working to attract businesses to Texas and the kind of growth that goes along with that requires investment in critical infrastructure. “That’s a good thing, but our state should be helping us with our schools, with our roads, with our sewer systems,” Vroonland said.
By Scott Braddock
Copyright May 13, 2014, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission.