A Texas school district opened a water park - and you paid for it

ByKeaton Fox KTRK logo
Friday, September 7, 2018
Texas school district opened a water park and you paid for it
Ted Oberg explains how taxpayer money was used to help construct a water park at another Texas school district.

AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) -- In mid-spring, as the sun was starting to fade near the Texas border with Mexico, about a dozen teenagers were getting training on CPR among other rules of how to keep children safe while they swam.

"Check for injuries, then call 911," the instructor tells them.

The instructions continue as they prepared for a grand opening at a brand new water park at the time would be coming soon. Now open, the park expects thousands of visitors if for no other reason than the complex cost: a cool $20 million.

It didn't start out at $20 million. The original cost was lower, but the complex includes not just the water park, but a natatorium and planetarium as well.

After all, the complex is educational.

It's owned, operated and paid for by the La Joya Independent School District, a half hour west of McAllen.

The water park is the only state-owned facility of its kind.

The park was built from the school's main education fund, commonly called the general fund. It wasn't paid for through bonds or any other credit. The district had the money available.

WATCH: What's wrong with the Texas system? HISD officials discuss what they need

Images from La Joya ISD show its new $20 million water park complex.

La Joya is considered a "poor" district by state standards. In one index that puts a number of how expensive it is to teach kids, it's at the top.

This town of just 4,209 educates nearly 30,000 students from in and mostly around the city limits.

Class sizes are small. On average, there are 15 students in a first-grade class, according to TEA data.

Most of the teachers have between 11 and 20 years of experience. Principals average 24 years of experience.

The district's budget is mostly state money, including some of the nearly $200 million Houston ISD sent to the state as a part of the "Robin Hood" program.

Nearly 94 percent of the students in La Joya are considered economically disadvantaged.

Because of that, the state's mathematic equation is supposed to give them a boost so they get equal amounts of money with other districts.

For comparison, 77 percent of HISD's students are considered economically disadvantaged. Yet, HISD is considered a rich district and will give up another $300 million to Robin Hood for districts like La Joya ISD.

This school year, only 10 percent of HISD's budget will come from state aid. On average, across the state, that number is closer to 35 percent.

State aid makes up about 75 percent of La Joya's budget. Local tax makes up almost all of the rest.

La Joya ISD officials refused to comment for our story.

Students there get extra money to make up for the economic conditions. As they should. Every student across the state is guaranteed an equitable education by the Texas constitution.

Yet the system that doles out the money is only barely constitutional.

In 2016, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state's system was getting a D-. It wasn't failing. But it was as close as possible to it without actually failing.

The formula

The idea for today's current system started in the 80's and its intentions seemed good: give students who may live in the far reaches of the state, away from the money of the big city, the same type education that any other student would get.

But since then, little has been done to keep up with the times and significantly shifting economic conditions across the state.

"We are just frozen in time like it's 1984 and mullets are all the rage and everybody's listening to cassette tapes and things like that," said Chandra Villanueva with Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. "We're getting into this situation where we're seeing a lot more equity between districts. Everybody's kind of on a level playing field, but nobody has enough revenue to actually meet the needs of their students."

"The problem is that the legislature doesn't reflect things like inflation and growing needs or update the 30-year-old formula," Villanueva said.

Villanueva has spent years of her life dealing with the incredibly complex equation that determines how much money each student gets.

We tried to create an incredibly simplified version. It took us days.

"I've done every single calculation or the formula by hand," Villanueva said. "It took me like six months to build my formula model."

The equation adds and subtracts dollars for any number of different factors, from enrollment to special education children to other weights for transportation.

One of the weights is called the Cost of Education index. The CEI was developed in the late 80's along with the rest of the formula with an eye on equality.

It gives districts a boost for areas that cost more to educate students. The more expensive a student's education was considered to be, it was assigned an additional weight up to 20 percent additional dollars per student.

At the top of that index is La Joya ISD. It gets the full 20 percent bonus because of its economic conditions.

What's happened over time is La Joya has benefited to the fullest extent of the 30-year-old formula. So much so, it has so much extra money, it can easily afford perks like the water park.

Meanwhile, in other districts, like Houston, students enjoy no such luxury as teachers are laid off and campuses closed.

How can the same system end in two such different results?

"We place a band-aid here and a band-aid there when our school finance system is really due for a full gut rehab," Villarreal said.

"There's gotta be another way"

Inside Houston's main administration building, the constant wringing of hands is a part of everyday life in the finance office. The man in charge, Rene Barajas, has the duty of making the numbers add up to keep the district in the black.

These days, it's not an easy task.

"It's tight," Barajas said.

Barajas speaks with confidence. He speaks carefully, but with enough certainty he doesn't sound worried that the district is short hundreds of millions of dollars.

After all, there's no secret bucket of cash out there he doesn't know about. There's no magical lever to pull and everything evens out.

"It's either going to come from Austin or it's going to come from Houston taxpayers," Barajas said. "I see no other revenue source at all."

When we spoke with him, it was not long after the HISD school board had given teachers a pay raise that would add $5 million to that deficit. It's his job to find money to cover that new budget hole.

On that same day, Governor Greg Abbott wanted to go a step further.

"We want to structure, a compensation plan that will put the very best educators on a pathway to earning a six-figure salary," Abbott said.

Barajas, with the same confidence as before, smiled and simply asked how it would be paid for. Abbott suggested it would be up to the legislature.

"I haven't seen them do much for public education," Barajas said. "If you think about 2011 when they cut almost $5 billion from public education."

Ashlea Turner is HISD's chief governmental relations liaison whose job it is to go to Austin and tell lawmakers the whole thing needs change. So far, they haven't done much.

"It's going to take pressure from taxpayers voters in particular, to put the pressure on their elected officials to say, 'Hey, I'm tired of these high property taxes,'" Turner said.

Turner has gone to Austin year after year and seen the studies done on education. One is continuing this year. How many times has it made serious changes?

None, that she can recall.

The system, designed to create fairness, is the complete opposite, Turner said.

"The school finance in Texas is unfair. It's unfair that a child born in the 2000s is under the system that was created when I was born 34 years ago. That is entirely inappropriate and our kids deserve better," she said.

Abbott pens op-ed: Schools must boost ed funding

In a late-August op-ed, published in the Dallas Morning News, Governor Abbott addressed the elephant in the room: the system needs an overhaul.

Not surprisingly, his approach differs from others on the right way to do it.

"It's clear to the Supreme Court, and to most Texans, that just throwing more money at a flawed system isn't going to fix anything," Abbott said. "Instead, we must focus on strategies that are most likely to help students achieve academic growth."

"I don't see kids in Texas as a problem to throw money at, but that's the one thing we really haven't tried is actually a big influx of funding into our schools, at least not in the last 30 years," Villanueva said.

In fact, the Texas Education Agency is asking for less money from the state budget. For the next funding cycle, the TEA is asking the state for $1.5 billion less in appropriations.

A TEA spokesperson says that's just a function of the formula that they have no control over. As property tax values increase and more money comes in, the state share automatically decreases.

That local responsibility continues to go up -- more from your pocket and less from other sources.

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