EDITOR’S NOTE: The story was updated Friday, March 1, 2019.
Concerned the La Joya school district is wasting taxpayer money, seven state senators filed a bill Tuesday to block Texas school districts from owning water parks and golf courses.
Senate Bill 1133 — which is backed by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville — would prohibit school districts from owning water parks and golf courses.
“There is no fact or supposition of fact that the core operations of a Texas School District should involve owning and operating a water park,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said in a statement. “Recently published press reports also indicate that the complex is operating at a loss and costing Texas taxpayers even more money!”
The bill caught the school board by surprise.
Lawmakers from wealthy school districts, which send property tax revenue to poor school districts as part of a system designed to equalize education funding, wanted to know why La Joya spent the money on a water park.
“The water park is used for the community as a whole, which I think is a very laudable use of the water park,” Hinojosa said. “But it is not the point of a public school.”
When lawmakers started asking questions about the water park, they discovered La Joya also spent $4.9 million on a golf course.
“We don’t mean to micromanage. And we don’t want to micromanage,” Hinojosa said, but lawmakers want school districts to spend money on education.
Both the golf course and water park, which is part of a $20 million project called the Sports and Learning Complex, lost money last year.
The Howling Trails Golf Course cost the school district nearly $302,000 during the 2017-2018 fiscal year, according to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report approved by the board in January. The Sports and Learning Complex lost nearly $250,000.
When the school board met on Jan. 14, Assistant Superintendent Alfredo Vela defended the Sports and Learning Complex.
“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 water park also attracted scrutiny from Gov. Greg Abbott.
“A Texas school district opened a water park and you paid for it,” Abbott tweeted on Sept. 6, when he shared a news story about the Sports and Learning Complex. “Now you know why it’s hard to get the Legislature to pony up more money for our schools.”
If the bill becomes law, school districts and charter schools would be prohibited from owning golf courses, water parks and hotels, according to the statement released by Bettencourt.
The bill puts that prohibition in legalese.
“A school district or open-enrollment charter school may not, directly or indirectly through an affiliate, including an affiliated nonprofit corporation, have a business interest in an entity or own real property associated with an entity described by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) in any of the following sector codes: (1) Sector 53: Real Estate and Rental and Leasing; (2) Sector 71: Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation; or (3) Sector 72: Accommodation and Food Services,” according to the bill.
Districts that already own golf courses and water parks would be required to sell, shut down or somehow relinquish ownership by Sept. 1, 2024.