January 29, 2013 / 10:36 PM / 5 years ago

TEXT-Fitch rates El Paso ISD, Texas bonds 'AAA' PSF

Jan 29 - Fitch Ratings has assigned 'AAA' PSF ratings and 'AA' underlying
ratings to the following El Paso Independent School District, Texas' (the
district) obligations:

--$59 million unlimited tax (ULT) refunding bonds, series 2013;
--$9.6 million ULT refunding bonds, taxable series 2013-A.

The bonds are expected to sell via negotiation on Jan. 30. Proceeds will be used
to refund outstanding obligations for debt service savings.

In addition, Fitch affirms the following ratings:

--$424.7 million outstanding ULT bonds at 'AA';
--$20.4 million outstanding maintenance tax notes at 'AA'.

The Rating Outlook is Stable.


The bonds are secured and payable by an unlimited property tax levy and are
further secured by the Texas Permanent School Fund (PSF), bond guarantee program
rated 'AAA' by Fitch. The maintenance tax notes are payable from all available
funds including, but not limited to, the operations and maintenance tax levy
limited to $1.04 per $100 taxable assessed valuation (TAV) on all taxable
property located within the district.


SOLID FINANCIAL RESERVES: The district's financial reserves have stabilized in
recent years. Operations yielded a healthy surplus for fiscal 2012.

LARGE AND DIVERSE TAX BASE: The district's diverse tax base remained relatively
stable and experienced no material TAV declines during the recession.

HIGH DEBT BURDEN: Overall debt levels are high despite substantial state support
for district debt. The pace of principal amortization is below average, due in
part to the accelerated debt issuances in recent years to make improvements to
existing campuses and to prepare for anticipated enrollment gains related to the
Fort Bliss expansion.

MANAGEABLE CAPITAL PLAN: The district does not currently have voter
authorization to issue new ULT debt and does not intend to approach the voters
in the next three to five years. Capital needs are manageable given that Fort
Bliss expansion, which is nearly complete, did not translate to previously
expected enrollment increases.

DIVERSE ECONOMY: Much of the city's economic activity emanates from its position
in a key NAFTA trade corridor near Mexico's maquiladora assembly plants, as well
as the presence of Fort Bliss. The recent expansion at Fort Bliss and an
emerging healthcare sector somewhat offset credit concerns regarding
historically below-average but improving income levels and high unemployment

ACCREDITATION AT RISK: The district's accreditation was placed on probation by
the Texas Education Agency (TEA) due to manipulation by the former
superintendent of testing procedures to improve academic standing. TEA has
placed a conservator in the district and has named a new governing board for the
district (pending approval from the Department of Justice).


MANAGEMENT ISSUES GO UNRESOLVED: Fitch believes a loss of accreditation is
unlikely because the district, along with the TEA, is proactively addressing the
issues that led to the district's probation. However, failure of the district to
avoid revocation of its accreditation would result in the cessation of
operational funding by TEA.


The district is the tenth largest school district in the state and the largest
in the City of El Paso. Historically, the area's economy has been based on
international trade, manufacturing, and copper mining. An expanding military
presence (Fort Bliss and Biggs Army Airfield) and educational concerns (the
University of Texas at El Paso and Texas Tech University Medical School) add
stability to the local economy.

Area income levels as measured by median household income are below average,
reflecting in part the area's lower cost of living. Government and educational
entities comprise most of the top 10 civilian employers, which provide roughly
25% of the area's employment. Major additions to the city's retail, commercial
and healthcare sectors brought unemployment rates down to record lows in 2007
and 2008. They rose along with the national unemployment rate through 2011 and
similarly improved in 2012. At 7.5% in November 2012, El Paso's unemployment
rate remains well above the state's 5.8% and slightly above the U.S. rate of


The TEA put the district on probation in August 2012, after finding that the
district's reported improved academic performance from 2009 to 2010 was the
result of the former superintendent manipulating student testing procedures. The
forensic audit and investigation is presently ongoing within the district into
the manipulation of student records. Additionally, the TEA assigned a monitor to
oversee the structural integrity of the district, campus testing, and student

In December, the TEA appointed a five-member board of managers, pending
pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice, and elevated the monitor's
role to conservator until the board of managers is formally installed. The TEA
also appointed the current interim superintendent, who was not involved with the
fraudulent reporting, to continue serving in his current role when the board of
managers is installed. An examination of the district's organizational structure
and system of internal controls on academic reporting and procedures is pending
the conclusion of the forensic audit and investigation. Given that management of
the district is in transition and may be for some time, Fitch will be looking
for stability of operations during that period.

Fitch is concerned about the recent findings that led the TEA to place the
district's accreditation on probationary status and the risk at which they put
the district. Fitch believes the forensics audit findings, the district's plan
to address any findings, and TEA's response to the district's efforts will be
key determinants in any near-term rating action. Fitch will continue to monitor
the district's current situation and will provide additional commentary as
credit relevant developments occur.


The recent expansion of the military presence at Fort Bliss as a result of the
Pentagon's 2005 base realignment and closure (BRAC) recommendations led to large
addition of troops and massive military and related private investment in the
area. Troop population grew from about 9,000 in 2005 to 27,000 and is projected
to increase to 30,600 by 2014.

The district positioned itself from both an operations and facilities standpoint
for a large influx of student population. However, enrollment levels related to
Fort Bliss growth proved difficult to forecast. Due to extended overseas
deployments, troop dependents have not relocated to the area to the extent
originally projected. This pattern has resulted in lower than budgeted
enrollment figures and has translated to a somewhat erratic pattern in financial
performance and challenges in facilities planning.


The district's overall debt ratios are moderately high at nearly $3,400 per
capita and 6.4% of total market valuation despite significant state support for
debt service. The district currently receives state support for roughly 30% of
its annual debt service requirements. Debt amortization is below average, with
about 38% of principal maturing in 10 years. Because of the lack of enrollment
growth, the district does not expect to seek another bond election for about
three to four years and reportedly has sufficient capacity for the currently
projected growth. All of the previous bond authorizations have been issued, and
proceeds remain to construct two new schools when the need arises. Even with the
sizable amount of recently-issued debt, the current debt service tax rate is
relatively low at $0.19 per $100 of TAV.

District employees participate in the Teachers Retirement System of Texas (TRS),
a cost-sharing multiple employer pension system. Contributions are made by plan
members and the State of Texas on behalf of the district, thus eliminating any
liability for the district. The system also offers post-employment health
insurance benefits (OPEB) to retirees.


Voters in June 2010 rejected a proposition to augment the district's O&M tax
levy (worth $18 million in additional state and local funds), leading management
to cut 89 non-teaching positions in fiscal 2011. Audited fiscal 2011 results
reflect only 10 months due to a change in the district's fiscal year end from
Aug. 31 to June 30. The unrestricted general fund balance increased to an ample
$76.3 million, or 18.4% of spending. These results were boosted primarily by the
change in fiscal year, as only 10 months of expenditures were charged against a
full year of revenues.

Fiscal 2012 audited results were positive and better than originally expected
despite large state aid cuts. The district responded to the reduced state
funding with budget cuts that included the elimination of 116 non-instructional
positions. At the close of fiscal 2012, the district added nearly $11 million to
total fund balance, ending the year with unrestricted general fund balance at
$93.6 million, or 21% of spending. The fiscal 2013 budget is balanced, and
management reports that year-to-date financial performance is in line with

Additional information is available at 'www.fitchratings.com'. The ratings above
were solicited by, or on behalf of, the issuer, and therefore, Fitch has been
compensated for the provision of the ratings.

In addition to the sources of information identified in Fitch's Tax-Supported
Rating Criteria, this action was additionally informed by information from
Creditscope, University Financial Associates, and LoanPerformance, Inc.

Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
--'Tax-Supported Rating Criteria', dated Aug. 14 2012;
--'U.S. Local Government Tax-Supported Rating Criteria', dated Aug. 14, 2012.

Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
Tax-Supported Rating Criteria
U.S. Local Government Tax-Supported Rating Criteria
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