Friday, November 2, 2012
Nation’s fastest-growing school district, Frisco ISD racks up highest debt among Texas schools
That's what you call high maintenance.
FRISCO Texas school districts are using debt to fund a large portion of their budgets, according to a new report by the state comptroller's office, and Frisco ISD is one of the state's leaders in outstanding debt.
According to the report, Frisco ISD ranked fifth in the state in terms total outstanding debt from 2001 to 2011, although it has the largest debt per resident and debt per student.
During the study's 10-year time span, Frisco accumulated more than $1.24 billion in total outstanding debt. During that same time, however, Frisco ISD was also the fastest-growing school district in the nation with a 412.1 percent enrollment growth rate.
Richard Wilkinson, Frisco ISD's deputy superintendent for business and operations, said the figures don't account for the rapid growth seen by both the city and school district.
"In 1997 we had just seven schools, and now we have 56 schools," he said. "So we've built about 50 schools in 15 years -- it requires a lot of funding to keep up with our growth rate. Not only are we talking about 50 buildings, but we're also talking about 50 sites that we had to purchase to build those schools."
The amount of schools the district has built is a direct result of community input received throughout the years. Community members and the school board have voiced their opinions and voted prior to bond elections to keep the size of Frisco schools relatively small.
"The decision to have smaller schools wasn't just something we pulled out of a hat," Wilkinson said. "Every time we were preparing for bond programs, we presented larger schools as an option, but the community and board still support our smaller school concept."
Campuses across the district have actually slightly exceeded capacity for a longer period of time because of financial constraints, as the district is acting intelligently with taxpayer money, Wilkinson said. Additionally, for the first time in about 10 years, the district won't be opening a new school next year.
In addition to the schools, Frisco ISD has also built other buildings, such as an administration building and the district's career and technical education center.
The latter building has cut down costs, Wilkinson said, as the district didn't have to spend money on equipment and implementing programs at multiple campuses; instead, students from across the district use the facility. The facility also results in fewer teachers the district has to employ, he said.
Because of the district's rapid growth, it employs a demographer and consults with a second to get updates on both short-term and long-term growth in Frisco as well as the areas outside the city the school district serves.
"Our growth has slowed slightly to about 3,000 new students a year, but the issue is we still have to find space for those students," Wilkinson said. "In our high schools, we've made expansions to increase capacities to help meet those needs."
Some of the suggestions listed in the comptroller's report for reducing costs is actually already being done by the district.
The report states that "using common prototype designs for buildings can yield considerable savings," which is a practice Frisco has implemented in many of its elementary and middle schools.
"We already use prototype buildings, although our high schools are all custom designed," said Shana Wortham, Frisco ISD's executive director of communications. "We do slightly modify the architecture so it fits in with the community, but our construction costs are very competitive."
Wortham added that the district also has many other cost-cutting initiatives, including using natural lighting in designs to reduce electricity costs. Motion sensors are also installed in new schools to turn off lights when not in use, and older schools have been retrofitted to include the devices as well.
The school district expects to continue building an elementary school each year from 2014 to 2016 along with another middle school. Independence High School will open in 2014, and the district tentatively plans to have another high school in 2016.
"We can prepare all we can, but a lot depends on how developments are built out," Wilkinson explained. "When we started our planning [years ago], we thought we'd need eight to 10 high schools. Hopefully 10 will be the max, but we could have anywhere from 55,000 to 65,000 students when we're fully built out."
Wortham echoed Wilkinson's sentiments and said the debt will be paid off, but right now it's necessary because of the area's growth.
"When you're as large as we are and grow as fest as we do, it's to be expected," she said. "When our growth slows, our debt will decrease until we get it paid off. We're maintaining a tax rate that's not at the [state] cap too, so bonds help alleviate some of the economic stress on our residents."
To read the full report on the state of Texas school districts' outstanding debt from 2001 to 2011, click here.
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