Impoverished Texas Border School District Faces Questions for $20M Sport and Water Park

La Joya Water
La Joya ISD

Questions surround how a small, impoverished South Texas border school district paid for a $20 million “sports and learning” complex that houses a 90,000 square foot water park.

In April, the La Joya Independent School District opened a one-of-a-kind 215-acre attraction that contains the state’s only public school-owned water park–a 6,124 square foot, full-dome planetarium, a 27-hole golf course, 30,000 square foot tennis courts, and 21,993 square foot natatorium.

La Joya is located in Hidalgo County about 18 miles west of McAllen. In 2016, the city’s estimated population was 4,293. Last year, La Joya ISD enrolled 28,788 students, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Online, the district highlighted that Hispanic students accounted for more than 99 percent of their enrollment. The school district serves students from across the Rio Grande Valley (RGV).

Houston’s KTRK reported on La Joya ISD’s water park suggesting Houston ISD taxpayers “paid for it” through the state aid like the “recapture” program. More commonly known as “Robin Hood,” recapture is a funding mechanism that requires school districts deemed “property wealthy” transfer tax dollars to Austin to help “property poor” districts. According to KTRK, state aid accounted for around 75 percent of La Joya ISD’s funding while local tax made up most of the remaining balance. The TV news outlet indicated school district officials refused to comment for their story.

On Monday, Breitbart Texas reached out to La Joya ISD to see if it would address where the funds came from to cover the $20 million complex. The district responded Wednesday with a lengthy press release. In it, district officials said they “saved funds for nearly 15 years,” worked hard to “minimize inefficiencies in their budget,” and exercised “fiscal responsibility” to pay for the complex. The district said it “regularly receives the highest possible score regarding its financial practices” from the TEA.

Much of the response explained La Joya ISD’s rationale for building the complex. “Nearly two-thirds of our families live below the poverty line, over 90 percent of our students are classified as economically disadvantaged, and a large majority of our high school students begin working before graduating high school to help their families make ends meet,” said the press release. It noted there are no YMCAs or official Boys and Girls Clubs for students, local summer activity programs are limited to the resources of the small towns within the school district’s boundaries, and the nearest library is 35 miles away.

“Where our students live, some streets aren’t paved, some don’t have street lighting, and some don’t even have a sewer service,” stated district officials. They explained they sought “innovative and forward thinking projects” to overcome the challenges their students face. “To live up to this obligation,” stated the press release, La Joya ISD looked at ways of being “efficient with taxpayer money.”

They explained that having tennis courts will “expand available athletic opportunities to students,” a natatorium means they no longer will have to pay pool leases and bus students across the RGV for swim practice. The 21st Century homework center, large enough to service their student body, was created as a “safe place” for after school studies. However, La Joya ISD administrators seemed perplexed by the media attention the water park received.

According to the sports and learning complex Facebook page, the water park opened to the public this summer, charging $5 per child and to adults 55-plus, and $8 per adult. Lap swimming costs $30.

In response to how they paid for the complex, a La Joya ISD spokeswoman told Breitbart Texas by email, “This facility was paid out of the district’s general fund.”

The general fund is a school district’s main education fund. The Foundation School Program (FSP) is the primary source of state dollars pumped into public school districts and charter schools, according to the TEA. The FSP ensures all school districts receive “substantially equal access to similar revenue per student at similar tax effort.”

State funding also comes from “recapture,” franchise taxes, vehicle and tobacco sales, Texas lottery proceeds, and the Texas Permanent School Fund (PSF). The state’s oil and gas industry boosts the PSF portfolio. This fund distributes money for instructional materials, technology, and day-to-day operating expenses. In 2017, Breitbart Texas reported the PSF was the nation’s largest educational endowment. It hit a record high value of more than $41 billion. Of that amount, the State Board of Education (SBOE) managed $32.73 billion which the TEA administered. The General Land Office (GLO) oversaw the dollars through the School Land Board.

Additionally, school districts also fund public education through local homeowner property taxes. The federal government bolsters school budgets through more tax dollars.

Last year, when the TEA revamped its rating system to A-F grades for school districts, La Joya ISD received a D in two of the four domains–student achievement and student progress. They got a B in closing performance gaps, and a C in postsecondary readiness. In August 2018, the district improved to an overall B average, a C in student achievement, a B in school progress, and a B in closing gaps.

According to the La Joya ISD website, they were only district in the RGV to secure a four-year federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grant worth $1.5 million annually. They plan to distribute the monies among 10 campuses to provide more than 2,000 students with after-school programs that are a “mix of extracurricular and academic clubs such as mariachi, theatre, and robotics” among others. They will also offer tutoring in reading, math, science, and social studies.

KGBT reported La Joya ISD has the highest paid teachers in the valley, according to the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB).

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.

La Joya ISD Statement on Sports & Learning Complex by BreitbartTexas on Scribd