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Comptroller's Report Examines College, Public School Debt

A report on government debt from Comptroller Susan Combs examines colleges and public school districts, the latter of which are responsible for a third of the money owed at the local level.

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As the lawsuit involving two-thirds of Texas school districts went to trial this week, the focus was on the effects of state-level funding cuts. But outside the courtroom, public school spending at the local level is under the microscope as well. 

The latest in a series of reports on government debt from Comptroller Susan Combs examines colleges and public school districts, the latter of which are responsible for a third of the money owed at the local level. 

The report highlights "savings snapshots" of entities with best practices and lists the public schools and colleges with the highest amount of local debt — the Frisco Independent School District and the Cisco Junior College District rank first in those categories with about $7,600 and $2,100 in per-resident debt, respectively. The report also makes recommendations on how to avoid further debt, such as expanding the use of technology and online courses to limit the need for new facilities.

According to the report, 854 of the state's 1,024 school districts have outstanding debt, and that amount that has increased by 155 percent since 2001. The fastest-growing districts, which educate about 40 percent of Texas public school students, have the highest per-student debt. 

The rapid growth in debt has also occurred at higher-education institutions, which have experienced a boom in enrollment over the last decade. From 2001 to 2011, the University of Houston System's per-student debt has increased by 217 percent, from $3,387 to $10,720. At the University of Texas System, which contains more research universities and health institutions that call for complex facilities, per-student debt has grown from $11,884 to $34,962 in the same time period.

A focus solely on local debt may obscure a more important underlying issue, said David Vroonland, the superintendent of Frenship ISD and the chairman of the Fast Growth School Coalition. Pointing to figures from a previous report that showed Texas has the least amount of state debt among the top 10 most populous states but the second highest when it comes to local government debt burden, he said the costs associated with managing growth in the state could be passed down to the local taxpayer in an effort to keep debt at the state level down.

About 100 school districts absorb 80 percent to 90 percent of the state's growth in public school students, he said. If the state provided targeted funding to those districts, he said, that would help keep down some of the pressure they face to build more facilities with local money. 

"They are building buildings because they absolutely have to have a place to put the kids," he said. "We are literally trying to provide a place to put a roof over their head."

In an interview with the Tribune, Combs said she aimed to increase transparency about local government decisions, not to criticize them. 

"There is no good or bad debt intrinsically. We’ve got debt on our house. People have debts on cars. People pick up debt to expand their businesses," she said, "It’s very variable, however, and if in fact, as in all of these cases, there is some connection to the taxpayer, the taxpayer wants to be part of the discussion. What are we spending money for? Do we know what the construction is for? And in some of these cases, it is not simple to find out."

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