Over the last few years, suburban areas across the state of Texas have grown at record paces with the arrival of new residents moving into the Lone Star State. As a result, school districts in communities outside of major metropolitan areas like Houston, Dallas, and Austin are being challenged to meet large spikes in student populations associated with the number of newly constructed homes and families moving into their communities.
Because of the mechanics and structure of Texas’ system of funding public schools, many of these school districts must ask voters to approve the issuance of bonds in order to obtain the funds necessary for major capital infrastructure projects, like the construction or expansion of schools. Unfortunately, in many cases these bond issuances result in an increase to school property tax rates imposed on homeowners, which are never popular and difficult requests for school boards to put out to their communities.
The reason for this is, under Texas school finance, school districts considered “property wealthy” (many suburban districts) by the state are subject to a law called “Robin Hood”, or recapture whereby they are required to send a portion of their local property tax revenues to the state for redistribution to other school districts or charter schools. This law has been on the books since the early 1990’s. Many of these “property wealthy” school districts are those that are currently challenged to meet the demand in population growth. Recapture, and other funding formula challenges, place difficult limitations on annual operating budgets. What this means is that the majority of school districts trying to keep up with increases in student population simply cannot fund the construction of a new school through general operating funds, thus compelling them to ask for voter approval for additional funds associated with selling bonds to cover construction and other major capital needs.
Here is the challenge: while most communities are excited for and welcome the benefits associated with major growth and development, housing developers are at no obligation or requirement to ask voters in a community for permission to build homes. Furthermore, seldom do developers actually consult with the school district to ensure that the families moving into the homes they are building will have a seat in a classroom for their child that isn’t in a “portable” building. This is not a slight on developers, their goal is to build – and sell – homes. And, the success of developers and school districts in many ways go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, the school district is sometimes the last entity to learn of a new neighborhood slated to come in nearby what may already be an overcrowded school.
For many communities, challenges associated with meeting population growth are “good” challenges. As a school district leader, I often say that it is much better to be in a school district experiencing rapid enrollment growth, rather than enrollment decline. However, there is a disconnect in the public education space that is limiting many school districts’ abilities to offer the educational environments that families expect, and quite frankly, likely moved into that community for. School leaders, developers and state lawmakers should take a close look at ways to bridge this disconnect and offer rapidly growing school districts additional capacity and greater flexibility to meet the needs of students and new families.