Compare more than 200 academic, spending and demographic measures for Texas public schools.
Texas Public School Construction Costs
If you own property in Texas, you are probably paying property taxes to fund school construction.
Public school districts account for the largest share of most property tax bills in Texas. In fiscal 2013, they also held more than half of all tax-supported outstanding debt issued by local governments — $64.8 billion.
According to Texas Bond Review Board (BRB) and Texas Education Agency (TEA) data, that’s more than $13,000 for every student in a district with debt. The share of all public and charter school expenditures spent on debt repayment — largely for construction — has grown from 7.6 percent in the 2002-03 school year to 10.8 percent in 2012-13.
During the same period, the TEA data show debt service spending rose by 103 percent, while enrollment grew only 19 percent.
School districts can levy a tax up to 50 cents per every $100 of a property’s value to pay down debt issued for large capital projects such as new schools, renovations, technology and athletics facilities.
Voters typically approve new debt through bond elections, but do they know exactly what they’re getting for the millions or even billions of dollars they’ve authorized at the voting booth? As we discussed in the Comptroller’s 2012 Your Money and Education Debt report, the lack of easily accessible, transparent information that typically surrounds school construction debt can leave taxpayers with plenty of questions.
Since no single publicly accessible database contains all Texas public school construction data, the Comptroller’s office submitted a public information request to every Texas public school district and charter operator to gather data on schools built from 2007 through 2013, and provide greater transparency on school construction costs.
Since 2010, the Comptroller’s Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST) has produced ratings of one to five stars for Texas school districts and campuses. Created in response to legislation passed in 2009, these ratings are generated based on a combination of relative spending and student academic progress.
For its spending component, FAST uses operational expenditures — funded in large part by a district’s maintenance and operations (M&O) tax — because they include the spending that is directly related to teaching students. In other words, operational expenditures are the input and academic progress is the output.
The other major component of school district taxing and spending is the interest and sinking (I&S) tax levied by many districts to pay off debt issued for capital purchases, the most prominent of which are school facilities. This construction survey is an effort to provide school districts and their taxpayers across Texas an opportunity to compare side-by-side new school construction costs over a multi-year sample.X
Why build? The reasons differ
School districts typically build new schools for one of two reasons: Either they need to keep up with student population growth, or they need to update aging facilities.
With an under-18 population that is expanding 6.5 times faster than the U.S. average, Texas has plenty of new students to fill its classrooms. Some of the most dramatic enrollment spikes have occurred in suburbs surrounding urban centers.
Eleven of the 13 Texas counties that grew fastest (by population) between 2007 and 2012 fall into this bracket. They are home to suburbs around Austin, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio. With populations ballooning at a whopping 15-22 percent, these counties accounted for 180 new schools.
Two Texas school districts — Cypress-Fairbanks that serves suburban Houston communities and Frisco near Dallas — have added dozens of new campuses in recent years to accommodate rapid and sustained enrollment growth. But growth isn’t evenly distributed across the state. Only miles away from Cypress-Fairbanks and Frisco, their urban neighbors — the Houston and Dallas independent school districts — are building new schools mainly to replace older campuses, but aren’t providing additional student capacity.
In rural counties where population is declining, new construction primarily replaces older facilities.
Learn Lessons From The Most Efficient Districts
The most efficient Texas school districts build schools for substantially less than their counterparts thanks to smart decisions in design choices, site selection and building methods.
Districts Have Told Us:
- Choosing the right architect and construction company for the community’s specific needs is very important.
- District facilities need to provide only what students actually require, so that they are not built and then left unused or underused.
- Do not build classrooms larger than needed.
- Decide if a cafeteria and auditorium can be placed in one dual-purpose space.
- Consider the height of ceilings. Is a 30-foot-high hallway ceiling necessary? Or would a 20-foot-high ceiling suffice, if it reduces materials costs during construction and lowers cooling costs every day?
- If several schools will be built, select a common design or architectural prototype that can be used for multiple sites, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- Wherever possible, select locations that don’t require substantial site work to prepare them for building, or involve wasted space.
- Consider sharing infrastructure by siting multiple campuses together.
- Small school districts have done this for years, realizing savings from shared staff and common facilities.
- One large school district with low average costs has arranged for an elementary school to use a neighboring high school’s auditorium and parking lot for its evening programs. The district gets more use out of its facility and everyone benefits.
Make Your Voice Heard on School Building
Local voter-authorized bonds funded by property taxes pay for most construction projects in Texas public school districts. As a taxpayer, you have a right to be informed and know what your school district is spending property tax-supported school construction projects. Visit Debt at a Glance to find your school district’s debt profile.
What should you know before you vote on construction bond debt?
- What is the purpose of the bond?
- Have specific projects been identified?
- Where can I read about the proposed projects or attend a meeting to find out more?
- Has previously issued debt been used for similar purposes?
- Where can I see the ballot language before Election Day? What does the bond proposal actually say?
- What tax-supported school debt has already been approved?
- How much total outstanding debt does the school district currently hold?
- When was the last district bond issue approved, and what were the funds used for?
- What is the estimated total lifetime cost, including principal and debt service, for current debt?
- How does my school district’s debt load compare with those of similar school districts?
- Will bond proposals from other local governments affect my property taxes?
- What is the school district’s current tax levy?
- Will this levy increase if the bond is approved, and if so, by how much?
- If the district anticipates a tax increase, when will it happen, and how will it affect my property tax bill?
- What would the tax levy be if no new bonds were proposed or approved?
Each school district and charter operator reported new school construction data in response to a public information request from the Comptroller’s office. For comparison purposes, we have adjusted the reported construction costs for inflation to 2013 dollars and applied the RS Means Texas Cost Index to adjust for regional differences in materials and labor costs.
The Comptroller’s office provided every district and charter operator the opportunity to verify or correct its reported data prior to publication, but did not independently verify campus data. These data are provided as is and as of the date indicated, and may not reflect school construction costs, school enrollment or other data as of any subsequent date.