Monday, February 28, 2011

Storm on the Horizon: Leander ISD


Previously I have focused my research on Round Rock ISD since that is where the bulk of my property tax dollars go, but it seems a major storm is brewing for another Williamson County school district: Leander ISD.

The Leander district has fewer students than Round Rock (30,321 compared to Round Rock's 43,008,) but according to Texas Education Agency reports, the LISD property tax rate is among the highest in the state at $1.4548. Superintendent Brett Champion, enjoys a salary of $194,399, along with other benefits, including a $1,000 per month car allowance and extra paid vacation time (beyond the usual paid breaks in the school year).

Like most Texas districts, teachers make up only 52% of LISD employees, although there are quite a few other non-teacher instructional staff members.  Curiously, although 13.4% of students are considered 'Gifted/Talented' and only 4.9% are 'Bilingual/ESL,"  the district employs 59 Bilingual/ESL teachers, but only 36 Gifted/Talented teachers. 

The most disturbing data from LISD's reports, however, are that total district expenditures are a whopping $17,084 per student. Unfortunately for Leander ISD, voters (probably the usual 4-6% that bother to vote in these elections,) have allowed the district to accumulate a shocking $1.2 Billion in bond debt.   (You won't find much of this information at the District's website, and the TEA reports are ridiculously difficult to obtain, but I've tried to make them more available at the above links.)

It seems back in 2007, the LISD School Board got a bit giddy, and even though they had just passed a $286 million bond the previous year, they convinced residents to approve a whopping $559 million bond- the largest ever in Central Texas.  The bond was purportedly to construct numerous schools, including a new regional sports stadium with a $22.5 million price tag.  A second stadium, A.C. Bible, was completely demolished and re-built for about $12 million.  While LISD did open the new state-of-the-art Vandegrift High School last year (for $117.6 million) and the John Gupton Stadium , two additional schools will be completed, but will not actually open.  The district does not have funds to hire the appropriate staff, which begs the question, why were sports stadiums a higher priority than supposedly much needed schools?

As if such massive borrowing were not disturbing enough, it seems the district has also made an annual habit of tapping their own rainy day funds to balance the budget.  In 2008 they used $4 million, in 2009 $5 million, and in 2010 took $5.9 million out of reserve funds to cover expenses.  This, in addition to as much as $8 million in stimulus funds, a one-time bump designed to 'save' jobs.  And yet, instead of cutting expenses, the board approved an across the board employee raise of 1.5% in 2009 and a 6% increase for the Superintendent in 2010.

Defenders of LISD are anxious to point out how very, very wonderful their schools are; after all, the district is 'recognized' according to the Texas Education Agency.  But the painful truth is that 16 of LISD's 37 schools inflated ratings by applying the TPM, or Texas Projection Measure.  The controversial provision allows schools to 'deem' students as passing standardized tests if the school predicts they will pass within the next few years.  In other words, students who failed are counted as passing.  Furthermore, the district has been criticized in recent years for watering down standards for high school students.

The problems facing Leander Independent School District are a cautionary tale for all of us.  Focus on federal spending and borrowing isn't going to be enough to save our country from insolvency.  We simply cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the way local entities, including school districts, are handling finances.  Unfortunately, many residents seem to think, "I entrust my children to them, therefore they must be trustworthy."  Sadly, our school districts have failed to manage finances prudently.

As expected LISD is considering all options, including significant tax increases.  What taxpayers and elected officials should be doing however, is demanding accountability and reforms to the way education funds are spent.   If allowed to maintain this dangerous course of tax-borrow-and-spend without real accountability, our education industry will slowly crush local economies and saddle our children with impossible debt.

Update:  LISD is holding two community meetings:  one tonight, February 28, at 6:15 at Vista Ridge High School, and one tomorrow, March 1, at 6:15 at Vandegrift High School.

Update: Leander ISD's 2010 tax rate is $1.4548. (Thanks Matt!)


pylorns said...

Very disappointing. I live in Leander but have just been here a year, had no idea the LISD was so poor in management. Seriously who takes a 6% pay raise in a down economy when you're borrowing from your reserve fund?

Rosalind Franklin said...

There is indeed a major storm brewing in public education. School districts have remained relatively immune to most of the economic stressors that “big business” experiences. But what business would still be in operation with a 2006 revenue cap at 2011 cost-of-living and having gone through the world economic crisis of 2008, which left no pocket book on the planet unaffected?

I’m not sure the purpose for the facts listed above, but here’s my 2 cents:

Here are current superintendent salaries for our area (state rank):
Austin $283,412 (10)
Lake Travis $272,427 (16)
Round Rock $252,876 (26)
Eanes $231,063 (48)
Georgetown $192,133 (91)
Leander $190,799 (95)
Pflugerville $181,188 (113)
Hays $179,900 (118)
Del Valle $167,200 (138)
Manor $155,251 (178)
Liberty Hill $127,504 (304)
Lago Vista $119,800 (385)

Not sure the purpose for the G/T and ESL paragraph
RRISD 3,433 students 178 teachers 19:1
LISD 1,478 students 58 teachers 25:1

RRISD 3288 students 56 teachers 58:1
LISD 4057 students 36 teachers 112:1

Please recall that all tax rates and bonds are voted on by the people who live in a school district. So if residents in the LISD area choose a tax rate that is among the highest in the state at $1.422, then so be it. Furthermore, growth demands new structures and the only way to build new campuses in the state of Texas is through a bond. Additionally, funds to build structures like football stadia must be through bonds as well, which people in a state where football is king will vote for. Discussion of bonds must be separated from discussion of operating expenditures.

The Texas Projection Measure was implemented in 2010 by the TEA and because of it, all school districts across the state of Texas saw inflated accountability ratings. These AEIS reports can be easily found at

What district in the state of Texas has not been forced to dip into their fund balance? Remember, districts are working with 2006 income in 2011. There was a letter of caution sent to Gov. Perry by the comptroller at that time warning this would happen The greater Austin area has seen rapid growth, particularly the suburbs, with Williamson county growing 58% in the last ten years forcing faster growing districts to expand.

So yes, the problems facing all school districts in the state of Texas are a cautionary tale for all of us. We must be fiscally responsible with constituents money and we must generate enough revenue to ensure quality instruction for our young people.

Now, how about proposing some solutions?

Holly Hansen said...

Keep in mind that Leander ISD is using bond money to make payroll as well. Furthermore, these districts 'sell' bonds to the taxpayers, but then spend far more on structures than originally advertised, in some cases, more than twice the original proposal. One solution is to better educate voters about these bonds and the burden it places on local economies.

There are many solutions out there that recognize the fact that constantly adding more money to anything labeled 'education spending' is not improving the quality of education. The non-partisan Texas Public Policy Foundation has outlined many suggestions for improvements/reforms, but teacher unions and powerful education lobby groups won't hear of them.

Texas has increased ed spending at the state level by 82% in the last decade; even in 2003, when most programs were cut, teachers got a raise and there was a per pupil increase from the state.

And actually, the LISD Superintendent was given a 6% raise and now makes $194,399.

AEIS and all available reports from the TEA were used to compile this article. The 2010 AEIS full report states that LISD has 14.5 students per teacher (not to be confused with class size-classes can be much, much smaller, and much, much higher.) 52.4% of Staff are teachers. LISD's problems are partially in excessive professional support staff.

Thank you so much for commenting, I always appreciate feedback and additional information I might have missed.

Matt Prewett said...

Hi Holly,

Leander ISD's tax rate for 2010 is 1.4548.


Eugene said...

In the mist of a budget crisis they are creating a new position with a $125k salary. A new CIO.

H said...

So what is the mechanism to attack this problem? When the school district has the 3rd highest tax rate in the area, and there is clearly room for reform, I'd like to know how a citizen can help drive reform and get this tax rate back down into a region consistent with the rest of the area. Right now, Leander ISD is about double that of other districts.