DALLAS -- The first Texas district to sell bonds authorized under the state's controversial new school finance law met with a reasuring response yesterday.
The $1.79 million issue priced by the Grand Saline, Tex., Independent School District went to First City, Texas of Houston with a net interest cost of 6.831045%. Moody's Investors Service gave the bank-qualified, unlimited-tax issue an Aaa because the bonds were guaranteed by the Texas Permanent School Fund.
The competitive pricing did not surprise investment bankers, bond lawyers, and analysts who have been waiting for the market's response to the bonds.
"It's my general impression that the demand is excellent," said Donald Karlberg, vice president for research at Kemper Securities Group in Houston. "The fact is, Texas school bonds are just as good as they always were."
The district's financial adviser, Bill Estes of the Estes Co. of Willow Springs, Tex., said he had expected no problems with the pricing because of the unlimited-tax pledge and permanent school fund guarantee.
The outlook for bonds authorized after April 1, when Gov. Ann Richards signed the school finance reform law, was not always so certain. Until the governor signed a technical corrections bill last month, districts could no longer issue unlimited-tax bonds.
That worried financial advisers because Texas schools have historically issued only unlimited-tax debt, which is generally preferred by investors. "We thought for a while that we might be required to issue them as limited-tax bonds," Mr. Estes said. "It wouldn't have made a lot of difference. I'm sure it would have cost us some interest rate."
Yesterday marked the first time in a dozen years that the Grand Saline district went to market with debt. Before the sale, the district, which is about 60 miles east of Dallas, had outstanding debt of $780,000.
Voters in the district approved three propositions on May 4 for a variety of projects. It is the first of two scheduled sales by districts whose voters approved bond issues after the new law took effect. The second, the Blanco Independent School District, is planning a sale on Monday. Ironically, voters had rejected tax increases for projects four times before finally approving a $2.325 million issue in May.
However, there initially were concerns that the vote may not be valid because voters approved unlimited-tax bonds, which are outlawed by the new school finance law. All other school bonds sold since the new law took effect are grandfathered because they were authorized prior to April 1.
But three weeks ago, Gov. Richards restored the ability of districts to issue unlimited-tax bonds authorized after April 1. The amendments to the school finance law only authorize unlimited-tax pledges for bonds that pass a complex test.
Post-April 1 bond issues "will have at least one more hoop to jump through," said Chuck Kobdish, partner at McCall, Parkhurst & Horton in Dallas, whose firm is bond counsel for Grand Saline. "It has to pass the threshold test."
The law allows schools to issue new debt approved after April 1 as unlimited-tax obligations if the debt service can be paid from a 50 cents per $100 assessed valuation tax after subtracting all debt approved after April 1.
The fornula excludes all debt issued before that date, including an estimated $1 billion rushed to market in the first three months of 1991.
For instance, if a district has new debt that requires a 5-cent levy for 30 years, then it could effectively issue the bonds as unlimited-tax obligations as long as the debt service was payable from the remaining 50-cents tax cap.
The Texas attorney general, who already must approve all school debt, determines whether bonds can be issued as unlimited-tax obligations.
The school finance law still establishes a maximum tax levy of $1.50 by 1994, but provides for an unlimited tax above that levy that might be necessary to pay debt service if assessments dropped or tax collections fell off.
The legislation essentially caps the amount of debt a district can issue, but most agree it will be years before most schools reach that ceiling.
Chris Evangel, an assistant vice president at Moody's Investors Service, which rates some 800 school credits in Texas, said the new issues were within that range. "They have plenty of margin," he said.