Comptroller: Texas schools racking up rising debt

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas school districts are racking up escalating taxpayer debt to build new classrooms and buy equipment, the state's Republican comptroller said Thursday, as a trial gets under way on how the state funds public schools after slashing spending by $5.4 billion.

School district debt rose 155 percent in the past decade to $63.6 billion in 2011, comptroller Susan Combs said in a report. Voters have approved that spending in increasingly frequent local bond elections that generally attract low turnout.

Combs' report highlights examples of questionable spending, although she said the report's intent is transparency not criticism. Nonetheless, it has political undertones: Combs, the state's chief accountant, is widely considered a potential 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor, and the report is her third this year about local government debt — an issue gaining steam among tea party groups.

It also comes at a sensitive time for school districts: more than 600 took the state to court this week claiming the school finance system is so broken that students aren't being adequately educated.

After school administrators saw lawmakers slash their budgets and force layoffs last year, Combs said they shouldn't see the report as a message that they're now spending too much.

"There are some wonderful examples in here of school districts doing a wonderful job. Those are best practices," Combs said. "I'm not trying to ding anybody up."

The school-funding trial in Austin involves six lawsuits filed on behalf of school districts that, when taken together, educate about 75 percent of the state's 5 million students. At issue is the amount of state funding and the formulas used to decide how that money — which is largely used to cover payrolls — is divvied up between rich and poor districts.

When it comes to building new schools or purchasing buses, school districts use bond packages ratified in local elections. More than 80 percent of the state's 1,024 school districts are carrying outstanding debt from those bonds, according to the report.

Payroll and operating costs eat up most school district budgets. Even with the rise in debt, paying for it accounted for less than 10 percent of expenditures in the 2010-11 school year, the report stated.

But it's the speed at which the debt has piled up that concerns Combs. Her report stops short of directly criticizing how any one school district spends its money but highlights new school constructions that carried heftier price tags.

Just outside San Antonio, the $38 million Corbett Junior High School cost 60 percent more per square foot than other middle schools surveyed by the comptroller's office. In suburban Houston, meanwhile, the $18.9 million Kahla Middle School was built using cookie-cutter designs applied across the Cypress-Fairbanks school district.

Combs' report recommends other school districts follow Cypress-Fairbanks' lead of using architectural prototypes. She also renewed her call that ballots in the polling booth break down for voters how the debt load would rise if a proposal passes.

She said the report was driven by feedback she received at 40 town hall meetings across the state. The message from those, she said, was that taxpayers were frustrated with their inability to control federal and state spending.

"The only place they have any possibility of managing their exposure is at the local level," Combs said. "They've asked me to provide this information."

The school-finance trial continued Thursday and is expected to extend into January.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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