School lands generate $3.4M for Travis County schools, LISD to get $255,935

Travis County Commissioners Court voted to distribute revenues from its 18,820-acre property in Throckmorton County last week. Leander ISD is to receive $255,935. Photo from Travis County.

By RYAN THORNTON, Austin Monitor 

For the first time since 2014, the Travis County Commissioners Court has voted to distribute revenues from its 18,820-acre property in Throckmorton County among 14 school districts across the county.

Leander ISD will receive $255,935 from the Throckmorton property school fund distribution, according to Commissioner Brigid Shea.

Melissa Velasquez, executive assistant for Shea, brought the fund to the commissioner’s attention recently after discovering that more than $3.7 million had accumulated from hunting, grazing and oil-pumping agreements at the Travis County School Lands since 2014. The court voted last week on Nov. 10 to send out $3.4 million of that sum to help school districts pay down debt and make permanent improvements.

“I’m sure for some of the schools this is going to be a really welcomed allocation of money,” Shea told the Austin Monitor. “And they didn’t know it was coming.”

With approximately 46.5 percent of the county’s student population, the Austin Independent School District is likely to receive the largest share of the funds, about $1.6 million. The remaining school districts should receive amounts ranging from $196 to $520,000.

In the years ahead, the county is looking to reverse the trend of declining annual revenues and generate more funds for school districts by adding renewable energy farms to the ranch’s energy production, which includes oil production by Phillips 66 and Sunoco Partners. The school land generates around $500,000 each year, down from more than $1.2 million in 2015, but the court is confident that the property’s location – approximately 140 miles northwest of Dallas, as the crow flies – makes it well-suited to both solar and wind production.

The county approved a solar agreement with Paradigm Power in November 2016, but plans fell through after the company failed to hold up its end of the deal. According to Shea, Paradigm never returned numerous calls from the county’s law department and nothing ever came of the agreement.

In 2018, the court decided not to renew its management contract with Neal McLain of Spade Ranches, who had been in charge of managing the property since 2006. Shea said Spade Ranches’ failure to make progress on wind and solar were major factors in the court’s decision to initiate a management contract with Nantz Land & Cattle, which committed to pursue both wind and solar over the five-year contract. Last week on Nov. 10, Shea said Nantz had already started negotiations with a wind developer.

“One of the really promising things that I think we have to look forward to as a source of potential additional revenue is this new management team is pursuing wind and/or solar leases on that land,” Shea said. “And I know Throckmorton is particularly windy so I think wind is definitely a possibility in the future, but it would generate more revenue for all of the various school districts that are within Travis County.”

Commissioner Jeff Travillion first proposed the option to enter into a contract with Nantz after the company expressed an interest in creating new sources of funds at the property.

“We had not been getting a whole lot of information, we had not been getting a whole lot of contact with the manager of the property before,” Travillion said. “We were basically going to roll over the contract, but instead of doing that, we pulled it back, put in some performance measurement and management protocols and wanted to have more of a sustainable process where we could look and compare what we have done over the previous years with what we were capable of going forward to do.”

The Republic of Texas gifted Travis County the vast Throckmorton County property in 1839. In the 1800s, Texas gave “school lands” to 238 counties. Back then, counties were responsible for education. Travis County’s 18,820 acres is at the Spade Ranch and money generated through it is held in the Travis County Permanent School Fund, not the general fund. 

The revenue-generating land helps fund school districts in the Austin area. Throckmorton County is 140 miles west of Fort Worth and 60 miles northeast of Abilene.

According to Sherri Fleming, county executive of Health and Human Services, Travis County is likely among the last to still hold its original school land grant.

“We’re definitely being more aggressive now about trying to generate revenue from them for the schools, partly because the schools have just suffered such appalling loss of state funds, in what appears to me to be in violation of the state constitution,” Shea said.

Austin Monitor is an online, nonpartisan, 501(c)3 nonprofit publication that covers local government and politics in and around Austin.