Investigations

AISD points to $20M water park as proof 'Robin Hood Formula' doesn't work

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It has all the makings of a privately-owned water park. The slides. The multiple-lane swimming pool. The $20 million price tag. 

There is even a full-size golf course there. 

All owned by the La Joya Independent School District. But, don't call it a "water park." 

It's the "Sports and Learning Center," La Joya ISD spokeswoman Alyssa Pena quipped into the phone when asked about the price tag for the district's park that opened in April. 

"You'll have to file a records request," Pena said. The district doesn't answer questions by phone, she said. KXAN submitted questions about the cost of the park and the golf course to LJISD Wednesday morning, but those questions were not answered by the time the district offices closed. 

The district is one of 648 districts across Texas that receives property tax dollars from the state. Those dollars were taken from districts that collect a certain level of property taxes and are forced to share those collections with districts that aren't considered "wealthy." 

The Austin Independent School District is the state's wealthiest if you look at the amount of money contributed to the state's recapture fund. AISD paid $405 million into recapture in 2017, according to statistics from the Texas Education Agency. 

Top 5 Recapture Payments
  • Austin ISD $405,345,868 

  • Plano ISD $104,545,350 

  • Highland Park ISD $86,824,358 

  • Eanes ISD $86,180,815 

  • Houston ISD $77,502,577

​​​​Those figures show Plano ISD, Highland Park ISD, Eanes ISD, and Houston ISD as the state's top-five contributors to the recapture fund. The fund paid out $1.2 billion to the state's least wealthy when measuring the taxable value of property inside Texas' school districts. 

"Again, you're going to hear me like a broken record, this just sort of speaks to the fact that the formula doesn't reflect realities. And I would say Austin--we've always been sort of the--we are the sort of face of why this doesn't make sense," AISD's Business and Operations Chief, Nicole Conley Johnson told KXAN. Johnson was responding to a question about La Joya ISD's construction of a golf course and water park project. 

"We've got more kids in poverty, yet we're considered wealthy under school finance laws just because of the property wealth, not necessarily the students and the families that we serve," Johnson said. 

AISD's answer to the recapture bleed might be with lobbyists. The district's 2019 legislative priorities include convincing lawmakers to change the way Texas public schools are financed. That included asking for changes in the law dealing with the amount of money districts like AISD have to give to the state. 

AISD is projected to have to forfeit $670 million to property-poor schools in 2019. More than half of every tax dollar collected by AISD will be going to the state's recapture fund, the district reported. 

One way to change the recapture law: hire lobbyists. 

We researched the Texas Ethics Commission's lobbyist registration and found AISD has ramped up its spending on lobbyists in the last two years. In 2013, ethics filings show AISD did not have a lobbyist working for the district. In 2014, 2015, 2016, AISD paid a single lobbyist. 

In 2017, AISD paid three separate lobbyists to try to convince lawmakers to vote on bills and work legislation that was favorable to the district. In 2018, AISD paid four lobbyists to work the halls of the state Capital.  

AISD is currently in a deficit and knows if something doesn't happen soon, more cuts could be coming down the road.

"The revenue side, I mean, there has to be something there in order for us to be able to balance. So, we don’t really know, we’re hopeful that it’s going to be favorable for us—for all school districts,” Johnson said. 

"I think we test out and prove out when people say it's flawed and undeniably broken," Johnson told KXAN.