Public debt load kills school bonds?

Posted Tuesday, Oct. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A school of thought has emerged in Texas, and has made its way into the debate about the Fort Worth school district’s $490 million Nov. 5 bond election, that the level of public debt in the state has risen so high that we simply should not approve any more borrowing.

Although there are valid points to be made about the rise in public debt, saying we should simply shut it off is akin to saying we should no longer venture outside our homes because dangerous things happen in the big, wide world.

“I see debt rising everywhere,” school bond skeptic Faith Bussey of Arlington said after raising her concerns at a FWISD town hall meeting. “This is a Texas-wide issue.”

That in itself does not make the Fort Worth bond proposals wrong.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin, issued a report this past summer noting that combined state and local debt stands at $233.2 billion. Local debt, the category that includes school bonds, is $192.7 billion of that total.

TPPF said “local debt totals more than $7,500 per person, up from $4,359 10 years ago.”

Brooke Rollins, TPPF’s president and CEO, wrote an op-ed piece in the June 30 Austin American-Statesman.

Local debt has grown fast, Rollins wrote, “indebting every man, woman and child in Texas to the tune of $7,500 per person. If this sounds like a lot, it is.”

It is a large figure. But it’s ridiculous to say that every Texan carries a public debt load of $7,500. A taxpayer in Fort Worth is no more obligated to pay back Houston’s municipal debt than they are to help pay off their bachelor neighbor’s new Corvette.

Where school bonds are concerned, Texans do have a sort of collective obligation. The 158-year-old, $28.8 billion Permanent School Fund guarantees repayment of school bonds, helping them get significantly lower interest rates.

But that guarantee only comes into play in an actual default, which has never happened.

People who want to raise issues about the debt to be incurred if the FWISD bond proposals were to be approved should confine themselves to the obligations that apply locally.

On that topic, even including all the local debt in taxing districts that overlap the school district, there’s little cause for alarm.

Total direct and overlapping debt in the Fort Worth district amounts to only 4.27 percent of taxable assessed property values. That’s low.

FWISD officials say if all three of the propositions on the ballot are approved, the eventual cost to the owner of a district-average $116,000 home would be about $30 per year.

Bond opponents should examine the alternatives. Some argue that Fort Worth schools are not performing well. How are they to improve? The proposals are aimed at providing better facilities and equalizing opportunities for students across the district.

If the goal is to get to no debt at all, then somebody has to come up with a way to build and equip schools on a pay-as-you-go basis. That’s not the way the state’s school finance system is set up now.

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