Texans have few protections from fiscal abuse by local governments. In regards to school bonds, local politicians have very few legal limits that restrict both how the debt is financed and how the approved funds are actually spent. Current law protects big-spenders instead of the taxpayers.
Garland ISD (GISD) is a prime example of such abuse. The school board is asking voters to approve a $455,500,000 bond in November. Not only are GISD officials failing to disclose both the interest cost and the tax increase on the ballot itself, they aren’t listing the bond projects as separate propositions.
GISD officials also admit they plan to misuse a large portion of the funds by issuing long-term debt to finance items that should be paid for with money set aside in the district’s operating budget. That’s analogous to financing a car over 15-20 years, instead of five.
Unfortunately for taxpayers, this wasteful practice is perfectly legal.
According to their website, $75 million is earmarked for “computer replacement & one-to-one student devices” (i.e. laptops or iPads), $12 million is for “lights & concessions” at baseball fields, while $166 million is for “mechanical, electrical, plumbing & sprinkler improvements [and] window replacements”.
None of the projects will expand classrooms or build new schools.
For every dollar borrowed, taxpayers could pay an additional 30% (or more) in interest expense. That means the $455 million bond could end up costing taxpayers over $650 million. If the proposal passes in its current form, the I&S property tax rate will likely double over the next six years, hurting low-income residents and struggling businesses the most.
To add insult to injury, voters have no guarantee that the projects they do want will receive funding. If this sounds questionable, note that the district’s own promotional graphic has an asterisk:
“NOTE: All amounts and projects listed are preliminary and subject to change. Actual use of any approved bond funds will be determined by subsequent action of the Board of Trustees.”
State law does not require that the bond amount approved be used to finance the promises made to voters—meaning these promises could prove to be false. Even if the district funds the projects it has promised, there are no plans to hire an independent auditing firm to review expenditures and ensure that tax dollars are spent appropriately.
There’s no question that bonds are necessary to finance needed capital improvements. Unfortunately, districts like Garland ISD are not leaving that decision in the hands of voters. Instead, they’re pushing forward with a single, ominous ballot proposition, understating the true cost of the new debt and planning to purchase items that should be paid for with operating cash.
Fiscal irresponsibility will hurt, not help, our public schools.
Since resources will always be limited, it’s critical that Texans demand higher standards from our public servants to ensure that the resources we do have are put to good use.
*For a complete list of reforms supported by TFR and the Coalition on Local Government, please visit this page.