TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — The Travis County Commissioners Court is banking on current grazing land in north Texas to help raise funds for local schools.
Commissioner Brigid Shea, who represents Precinct 2, said the county decided to move forward with a solar energy lease on the county-owned property because it could potentially generate $6 to $8 million for local schools over time. The proposal is a 25-year lease that may result in $250,000 of annual revenue for Travis County students in public schools.
The 300 to 400 acres of land in Throckmorton County belongs to Travis County and the county has long had oversight of the land. Texas state school lands are historic pieces of land that are distributed to Texas counties and they’re often referred to as ‘county school lands.’
“In 1839 the Texas Congress, in compliance with a suggestion from President Mirabeau B. Lamar, appropriated from the public domain three leagues of land to each county, the land to be used in establishing public schools. The next year an additional league was added to each county’s allotment.”
“Most counties that have these school lands [state school lands] have used them as basically just grazing lands where they would get grazing leases, which don’t generate a whole lot of money,” said Commissioner Shea. “Solar and wind are such an exciting opportunity for the county.”
Currently, cattle occupies the county’s land through a grazing lease. That will continue. However, by moving forward with solar and eventually seeking wind leases on the land, Shea says the county anticipates generating as much as twice the revenue for the county’s school children.
Austin ISD would likely see the largest revenue from the lease because the division of funds is based on population. Eanes, Pflugerville, Manor, Del Valle and Round Rock would also see a portion of the revenue.
“We said at Travis County, how can we maximize this for school children in our county, and that’s when we went out to the market and said how much will you pay us and are you interested in a solar lease and a wind lease on this land?”
Shea told KXAN the revenue is distributed among all the school districts where there are residents of Travis County attending. Shea says the court has been forced to get creative because the state hasn’t adequately funded education in Texas.
“The state has been systematically cutting back funding for public education,” she said. “I wish the state would step up and do more, but, they haven’t and so, we’re having to get creative about every way we can find funds.”
Texas Republicans argue the state does not need additional funding for education, arguing there may be an underlying issue at play.
“More money is not the solution. Throwing money at a problem never works unless there’s no money to begin with. The problem is there’s plenty of money. We just have to spend it more wisely,” said Andy Hogue, the communications director for the Travis County Republican Party.
Travis County is still negotiating the terms of the lease with Paradigm Power, LLC. The corporation’s proposal was received for the project on Aug. 30. Shea expects the solar panels to be up and running some time in 2017. The wind lease is next.