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Districts face different challenges

20140808 School-BudgetIt’s no secret La Joya ISD is home to some of the most low-income children in the area. Many of the district’s 29,000 students come from homes in the colonias, some without indoor showers.

La Joya Independent School District includes the types of neighborhoods that attract church groups from nearby and afar during the summer and over Spring Break hoping a week of good deeds will mean something to families struggling to make ends meet in the rural western portion of Hidalgo County. Every Christmas, the more blessed of district’s own students come together and campaign to raise presents for their poorer classmates, picking a day to board buses and spread out across the area to deliver their holiday goodies.

Statewide, La Joya ISD ranked in the bottom 20 of Texas’ 1,000 school districts when it came to wealth per weighted average daily attendance, a method the state used to measure the amount of wealth per student using property values, according to the Texas Education Agency. In 2011, the amount of wealth per student in La Joya ISD was $55,569. That was down $6,000 from the year before. In comparison, Mission Consolidated ISD was listed at $79,504 and Sharyland ISD was $192,957.

Yet, as the three area school districts prepare budgets for the 2014-2015 school year, attending La Joya ISD meetings can seem a bit like watching the Oprah show when everyone gets a car.

In La Joya ISD, the staff is getting 4 percent raises and teachers are getting a $2,400 bump in pay. Earlier this year, every freshman in the district received an iPad Air. In the proposed budget, the district is looking at dipping into its general fund to pay for new band instruments, buses and improvements to school campuses. The district bought a golf course last year and plans to build a sports complex on the site, complete with a $12 million natatorium. A $2 million planetarium also is in the works.

The district’s leaders have stressed that they have saved for eight years. The fund balance grew from $63 million in 2009 to more than $93 million the very next year. Since then it has grown to $116 million.

“We’re obviously doing a lot of investment into our students,” said Eden Ramirez, spokesman for the district. “This budget was a budget of investment, and investing directly into our students.”

He said the district payroll has suffered over the past eight years while the budget leaders were being fiscally conservative. Now, he said, it’s time to make sure teachers are fairly compensated.

Meanwhile, down the street, both Mission CISD and Sharyland ISD are looking at tax increases to balance their respective budgets.

Mission CISD is considering a 3-cent tax increase, but administration also has said it’s looking at a 5.5- to 13-cent tax hike to cover a budget deficit. In 2011, the district approved a tax swap that kept the overall tax rate the same, but moved 13 cents from the interest and sinking rate (used to pay off debt) to the maintenance and operations rate (the general fund). At the time, the district was able to leverage the additional funds in the M&O account to get a larger reimbursement from the state.

Because of that move, consultants have said the district now doesn’t have enough money to make its annual debt payment.

Sharyland, long considered a richer district in the Valley, isn’t giving its employees raises and it postponed plans for a $3 million natatorium this year as board members agreed to prioritize an early college academy instead. The district is experiencing growing pains as it not only brings the college academy online, but it also is wrapping up construction on the $55 million new high school.

When Sharyland ISD trustees talk about improving technology, they point out they by no means plan to put an iPad in every student’s hands. Instead, they’re looking at giving the students access to technology.

As for La Joya, Ramirez said $4 billion in state budget cuts in 2011 didn’t affect La Joya ISD like it did other districts as student attendance increased from around 23,000 in 2005 to a projected 29,000 next school year. That means, Ramirez said, the school was getting more money for more students, offsetting the cuts.

Additionally, last year the district saw millions of dollars in savings after hiring an energy director to help cut back the district’s consumption. That money will be used to provide all elementary students with school supplies. That affects about 16,000 of the district’s students.

Also, he said the district’s priorities are different than its neighbors. Its coaches make less than others and administration’s payroll makes up less than 1 percent of the budget.

Yes, La Joya ISD has nice facilities, Ramirez said, but that’s because the district has staff that takes care of maintenance.

“That’s because the culture in our school district is a very prideful culture,” Ramirez said, adding that a large portion of the district’s employees once attended its schools. “La Joya High School is almost 30 years old. Central administration is housed in buildings built in the 1930s, 1940s. We have a lot of new buildings, but we take care of our facilities.”

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