In the private sector, a business that consistently serves fewer customers faces numerous unpleasant consequences. Layoffs. Furloughs. Pay reductions. Rightsizing.

In the public sector, things don’t seem to work that way in Texas local government. Take Austin ISD, for example.

For years, Central Texas’ largest public school district has witnessed a steady decline in its student population. Consider the last 10 years of enrollment data sourced from the district’s own budgets:

  • 2014 (actual): 85,372
  • 2015 (actual): 84,564
  • 2016 (actual): 83,628
  • 2017 (actual): 81,817
  • 2018 (actual): 80,590
  • 2019 (actual): 79,787
  • 2020 (actual): 80,911
  • 2021 (actual): 74,982
  • 2022 (projected): 77,021
  • 2023 (projected): 74,987

Hence, by its own estimates, the district is teaching 12.2% fewer students today than it did 10 years ago. But wait, there’s more.

Over the weekend, the Austin American-Statesman reported that the district’s student enrollment had dipped even lower than it had predicted in its budget. Here’s what the Statesman found: “Enrollment in the Austin school district sits at 73,730 this year, dipping 1.2% from 2021 and continuing a decade-long trend of declining student population…This year’s student population—taken on Oct. 28 as part of the district’s annual snapshot day—is 872 students lower than the 74,602 that were enrolled at the same time last year…” Thus, in reality, the district’s student population hasn’t shrunk 12.2% over a decade—it’s more like 13.6%.

Now consider Austin ISD expenditure growth. Below are total general fund expenditures by function for the same period:

  • 2014 (actual): $838,165,769
  • 2015 (actual): $909,316,514
  • 2016 (actual): $928,283,780
  • 2017 (actual): $1,171,949,258
  • 2018 (actual): $1,311,455,756
  • 2019 (actual): $1,429,708,133
  • 2020 (adopted): $1,437,038,087
  • 2021 (adopted): $1,494,901,335
  • 2022 (adopted): $1,578,598,486
  • 2023 (recommended): $1,681,311,279

What the data shows is a roughly 100% increase in Austin ISD’s general fund expenditures from 2014 to 2023. To be fair, this percentage increase does include recapture payments which has the effect of artificially boosting the level of expenditure growth. But even after accounting for this factor, the data shows that school district spending is trending in the wrong direction, especially given all of the enrollment loss.

The takeaway here is that government will always find an excuse to grow and spend Other People’s Money—even when there’s no justifiable reason to do so. That makes it all the more important to pass meaningful reforms next session that require strict fiscal discipline, maximum transparency, and common sense.