Texas Town Restricts School Admissions, Sounds Alarm

Boom at the border distorts enrollment picture in schools; residents wonder how NAFTA will change the situation

ALARM bells rang in the usual quarters when the La Joya Independent School District announced an impending change in admissions policy to relieve the burden of its explosive growth.

Was the Texas school district on the Mexican border trying to exclude Hispanics? Immigrants? Illegal aliens?

None of the above, it turned out. The real story behind the new policy, which La Joya's administrators plan to adopt today and implement next fall, is how the surge in trade between the United States and Mexico has caused the price of land in border cities to soar beyond the reach of newcomers attracted by the boom.

Since this situation began well before the North American Free Trade Agreement, which takes effect next month, it remains to be seen whether NAFTA will accelerate the bustle at the border, as residents want, or disperse it across the interior of the US and Mexico. Hope for NAFTA boom

``We're hoping NAFTA will bring a much bigger boom in our economy so we can make do with the boom that we're having in our population,'' says Roberto Gutierrez, a Democratic state representative from McAllen. His district also included La Joya before redistricting in 1991.

Ronnie Bourland, La Joya's administrative assistant for student services, knows firsthand how hot the real estate market is in McAllen. He had been renting a house there, but his landlord wanted to sell the house at a handsome profit and asked him to move out. Mr. Bourland did so.

Priced out of McAllen, many of the newly arrived have been forced to make their homes 17 miles west, around La Joya, a poor, rural, and nearly 100 percent Hispanic district that sprawls across 264 square miles of southwestern Hidalgo County. Cheap land and nonexistent zoning allow the creation of colonias - crude subdivisions that lack basic utilities.

``They move in there with a little small trailer,'' Bourland says. ``Now they're living here. They're poor, right?... Those people, we don't have any problem with, because they're living in our district. Our problem is if someone brings five, six, seven kids over here to live with an aunt,'' he says.

Enrollment at La Joya has been rising at more than 1,000 pupils per year for several years. This year it increased 1,300 - 10 percent - to stand at 13,000. Tax revenue rose only 1 percent.

``You see where our dilemma is,'' Bourland says. ``We've had to put classrooms up on our stages. We have portable after portable on all of our campuses. But we're not the only one. It goes from Laredo to Brownsville.'' Property rate sky-high

La Joya has built eight schools since 1981, with one set to open next month. The property-tax rate ``is about as high as it can go,'' Bourland says. And that has led administrators to revise La Joya's admissions policy.

Under the previous policy, a student living in the district, but not with a parent, needed only present a notarized statement that the person with whom he lived was his legal guardian. The new policy, subject to review by the Texas Education Agency, will require proof of legal guardianship.

Obtaining guardianship costs more than $400 - prohibitively high in most cases, Mr. Gutierrez says. ``Why should we bear the burden of educating those children that are not actually legal residents of our area?''

Bourland says that 85 percent of this year's new students are bona fide district residents. Of the remainder, only a fraction come from Mexico. Many more come from neighboring districts.

La Joya officials say they are happy to educate students who have come from Mexico legally or illegally, just as long as they are residing in the district with their parents.

Organizations that are sensitive to the issue of educating immigrants are concerned about La Joya's intentions, given events elsewhere.

For instance, some taxpayers in Columbus, N.M., had recently lost a suit to halt the local school district's long-standing habit of providing residents of Mexico with a free education, including bus service between the schoolhouse and border.

The 500 pupils (most of whom, incidently, were born in a US hospital and, thus, are American citizens) account for 25 percent of the district's enrollment and $650,000 of its budget.

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