Two words may haunt the La Joya Independent School District during the legislative session: water park.
The school district spent about $20 million on a Sports and Learning Complex, which includes a planetarium, tennis courts, an indoor pool and a water park — complete with slides, splash pads and a “lazy river.”
“The State will add more funding for education,” tweeted Gov. Greg Abbott, who shared a link to a news story about the water park on Dec. 16. “But it won’t fund water park projects like this. We will invest in the teachers who educate students.”
Abbott had already slammed the water park in September.
“A Texas school district opened a water park and you paid for it,” Abbott tweeted on Sept. 6, sharing a link to the same news story. “Now you know why it’s hard to get the Legislature to pony up more money for our schools.”
For western Hidalgo County, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Federal and state funds account for about 90 percent of the district operating budget, according to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report approved by the school board on Jan. 14. Most of the money funds payroll.
With about 4,400 teachers, support staff and administrators, the school district is the largest employer in western Hidalgo County, charged with educating nearly 29,000 children, according to Texas Education Agency data.
Texas sends millions to La Joya every year, attempting to equalize school funding among districts with similar student populations, sizes and property tax wealth.
The state sales tax, lottery revenue and property taxes collected by wealthy districts support poorer districts, including La Joya.
Lawmakers plan to reform the school finance system during the 2019 legislative session, providing additional funding, attempting to reduce the property tax burden and rewarding districts that demonstrate top-notch results.
News about La Joya building a water park attracted attention in Austin because the school district struggles with the basics, including student reading scores, said Kara Belew, the senior education policy adviser at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit research organization with a conservative bent.
State data shows that just 36 percent of La Joya students met or exceeded the grade level standard in English Language Arts/Reading on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test, which is commonly called the STAAR.
“It really calls into question: ‘What are we spending our money on in education and how is it helping our kids?’” Belew said.
Word about the water park also spread quickly because of concerns about how school districts spend taxpayer money, regardless of where they fall in the school finance system.
“I think that the La Joya water park was the most egregious example,” Belew said.
Attempting to head-off the controversy, school district administrators offered Rio Grande Valley lawmakers a tour.
“I’m sure it’s going to come up,” said state Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr., D-Palmview, adding that he expects questions from colleagues after the governor’s tweets. “But I think it’s just a matter of getting the right information.”
State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, who serves as vice chairman of the influential Texas House Appropriations Committee, said he wasn’t sure whether or not the water park would become an issue for lawmakers.
“I believe school districts are in the business of educating students,” Longoria said. “And everything else is secondary.”
Along with construction costs, school districts must be mindful of operating costs for non-essential projects.
“It’s one thing buying it,” Longoria said. “It’s another thing up-keeping it.”
Assistant Superintendent Alfredo Vela discussed the water park controversy at the Jan. 14 school board meeting.
“As you all have heard, we get accused in the media that we have a $20 million water park. Well, we do want to set, pretty much, the record straight,” Vela said. “It is not a $20 million water park. We have a $20 million investment in our kids. Which consists of $2 million for what we’re calling the water park.”
The Sports and Learning Complex, which opened last year, generated about $219,000 in revenue over the summer, Vela said. Expenses totaled $147,000, which left the school district with a profit.
However, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which the school board approved at the same meeting, told a slightly different story.
During the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the district spent nearly $540,000 to operate the Sports and Learning Complex. Revenue totaled about $289,000, leaving the district with a nearly $250,000 loss.
The school district golf course, Howling Trails, also ran a roughly $302,000 deficit. Money from the general fund covered the losses.
Members of the school board defended the Sports and Learning Complex, which excites students and offers them educational opportunities.
“How can we place a price tag on our students?” said school board Trustee Espie Ochoa, adding that it’s especially important for students to take swim lessons.
Other districts build state-of-the-art football stadiums, which cost far more than the Sports and Learning Complex.
“And it’s like ‘Wow,’ I’d never seen anything like it,” Ochoa said, recalling her reaction to palatial football stadiums near Houston. “But that’s not being criticized. And that’s not fair.”
If the governor wants to know more about the Sports and Learning Complex, he’s welcome to visit the school district, Ochoa said, adding that she supports the project.
“I would love for the governor to come and visit our learning complex, and for him to see firsthand the dynamics and the opportunities it’s brought for our students and staff,” Ochoa said.
Districts with large football stadiums, though, typically seek voter approval, which comes with a corresponding property tax hike. La Joya funded the Sports and Learning Complex with general fund money.
J.J. Luna, who works for the American Federation of Teachers, attends most school board meetings and keeps close tabs on the district.
Speaking for himself — not on behalf of the union — Luna said the Sports and Learning Complex made a big impression on students.
“I see the planetarium, the natatorium, the tennis courts. All of that is something good for our community. That was money well spent,” Luna said. “The water park? We could have done without the water park.”