By SHELLY WILKISON
More than 30 years ago, Liberty Hill’s top educator charted a course for a different kind of life that would have taken him to the faraway places he had learned about as a public school student growing up in the refinery towns in Southeast Texas.
Looking back, Dr. Rob Hart admits that sometimes he wonders how life would be different if he had pursued his dream of flying. But, quickly he is reminded that the career choice he made has taken him to heights that no airplane can reach.
“I wanted to fly for a major airline, and never thought about teaching,” Hart said. “But what I’m doing now is much more rewarding.”
In his fifth year as Superintendent of the Liberty Hill Independent School District, Hart finds himself charting a course for growth that has led him to the pilot seat of the largest construction project in the school district’s history.
In 2010, voters said yes to an $86 million bond package to build a new high school and athletic facilities west of town, expand the current high school and junior high campuses and make needed renovations to other campuses. All of the projects are scheduled for completion in summer 2013.
Typically, almost every conversation with Hart on an education-related topic turns to growth in Liberty Hill’s enrollment. While he laughs at the notion that it’s all he thinks about, Hart admits that making room for more students is at the top of his radar.
“The majority of every day is now spent on that (dealing with growth),” he said. “Every day there are construction meetings, meetings planning the move (into new facilities), phone calls and decisions to be made about submittals. I’m not wearing the hard hat, but it is a constant concern.”
Hart, who came to Liberty Hill in 2008 after completing eight years as superintendent at West Independent School District near Waco, recalls that during his job interview with school trustees the top concern was dealing with growth.
While Hart spent his first year acclamating to his new school district, the economy slowed and the highly anticipated growth did not materialize.
“Looking back on that, it was a blessing because it bought me some time,” he said, adding that in 2009, things began to change for the better.
With the current enrollment at Liberty Hill Intermediate School at 435 students, Hart uses that number to put the growth into perspective.
He said since his first day on the job on Sept. 2, 2008, the school district has grown by 439 students.
“We added an entire school without adding a facility,” he said. “The first two years were slow (to grow), and I think what’s happened since then speaks volumes.”
Under current funding formulas, a school district’s state allotment only increases as enrollment increases. Thus, Hart and other school district officials stay alert to talk of planned residential developments, and the district maintains a policy of welcoming everyone into school even though they might not reside inside the district boundaries.
“We’re growing because people want to be here,” he said. “They’re school shopping and choosing to live here.”
Hart said Liberty Hill schools have a stellar reputation throughout Central Texas.
“We offer a top-notch education and get recognized for it,” he said.
In recent years, the district has been recognized by the State Comptroller for superior financial ratings; and in 2012, LHISD was one of only two school districts in the region that met federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards. The recognition was based on participation and performance on state assessments, graduation rates and attendance.
While Hart gives much of the credit for Liberty Hill’s success to teaching staff, he said leadership at the top plays a role.
When asked to identify what he thinks he contributes to the district’s success, he said public relations and communication are his strengths. He said he also excels at planning, as well as the ability to hire well-qualified people.
“I feel good about what I’ve done everywhere I’ve been,” Hart said.
Hart said the average job stay of a superintendent in Texas is about three years. While he has exceeded that, he said the key to longevity is a supportive school board.
He said local school trustees are serving without a personal agenda and there is a level of trust between them and Hart.
He said he communicates with them regularly outside of the Board Room, and they come prepared for Board meetings by doing their homework and asking questions in advance.
Hart said his goal for the fifth year and going forward is to help Liberty Hill achieve the Exemplary status.
“We haven’t made that yet, but we will,” he said.
And as the district continues to grow, Hart said maintaining a small school feel is a key to success.
“Our goal is to maintain the same small school feel as we grow to 15,000 students as we have with 3,000,” he said. “We should never let a kid become anonymous.”
He said something that has impressed him with campus administrators is that he can pull a roster from any school and the principal will be able to tell him something about most any student.
“Staying ahead of the growth is how we do that (maintain the small school feel),” he said. “Once you start playing catch up, you stay behind.”
Hart says he has a vision for the school district that is rooted in a deep commitment to the value of public education.
Hart, who graduated from Beaumont High School in 1975, said he grew up in a family that believed strongly in the importance of public education and the contribution public schools make to a community.
In fact, it was a high school band teacher, who inspired Hart’s interest in flying. The band director taught an aviation class as a high school elective and taught private flying lessons outside school. By his 17th birthday, Hart had earned his pilot’s license.
With a goal to fly for a major airline, Hart enrolled in Northeast Louisiana University (now the University of Louisiana at Monroe) where in 1980, he earned a degree in aviation. He said his dream to fly was interrupted by deregulation of the airline industry in 1979, when there was suddenly a plethora of pilots and not enough jobs to go around.
While his wife, Penny, who also studied aviation in college, was substitute teaching at their old high school, Hart went to work in a refinery in Port Arthur. While in school, he had spent the summers working in the refineries where his father had worked.
“She (Mrs. Hart) loved it (teaching) and encouraged me to try it,” he said. “I ended up going back to school to get a teaching certificate.”
Hart spent his first two years teaching in a self-contained sixth grade classroom in Bastrop, Louisiana. He was 26 years old and managed a classroom with 32 students. He jokingly refers to the experience as his “boot camp years.”
The Harts realized that if they were going to pursue careers in public education, they should work in Texas “where the schools were better,” he said. They moved to Athens in East Texas where they stayed about 14 years. It was there that Hart made the transition from teaching to school administration.
He served as assistant principal at the junior high level and principal at an intermediate school. From Athens, the Harts moved to Eustace where he served six years as assistant superintendent; and then to West where he lead the district eight years.
Mrs. Hart teaches math at Liberty Hill Junior High. The Harts have two daughters — the youngest, Shelby, is a senior at Liberty Hill High School.
While he has seen many changes in public education during his career, including very real threats to state funding in 2011, Hart said he has never been as concerned about the future for public schools as he is now.
He said key elected officials who will serve in leadership positions in the Legislature when it convenes in January 2013 are not supporters of public education.
“There has been a political shift,” he said. “While it would be hard to deal us (public schools) another cut (in funding), the two issues on my radar are vouchers and allowing private schools into the UIL (University Interscholastic League).”
Hart said a resolution proposed in the Republican Primary asked voters to support school choice, which he says is a voucher system. He said he has seen how vouchers work in neighboring Louisiana and the system has had a devastating impact on public schools.
Hart said allowing private schools to compete with public schools in athletic and academic UIL events gives an unfair advantage to private institutions.
“Private schools can recruit students,” he said, creating an uneven playing field.
While Hart has shared his concerns with elected officials representing LHISD in the Texas House and Senate and feels confident that they will be supportive, leadership changes in both chambers have the influence to push bills that have already been filed.
“We’re changing the topic from funding schools to this,” he said. “And this threatens to fundamentally change the landscape of public education.”
In communities like Liberty Hill where the school district is the largest employer and families are relocating here because of the schools, the impact of the legislation could be quite serious. Hart said he will closely monitor legislative discussions on the issues.
“By providing this community with a quality educational system, we are helping to shape its future,” he said.
While city government has not always been cooperative with the school district, Hart said the future of the two entities is directly linked.
He said one of his biggest challenges at the helm of LHISD was maneuvering through the changing political winds at City Hall to obtain support for critical infrastructure as the school district grows into new facilities. While he believes relationships have been mended and the district obtained the support it needed to connect new buildings to city wastewater service, he said the experience caused him “heartburn” and was nothing less than “frustrating.”
With a constituency of about 14,000, the school district found itself dependant on a city of 900 to provide infrastructure. Hart said when he first arrived in 2008, the district was not dealing much with city government.
“When I came here we weren’t dealing with them on our progress,” he said. “We didn’t need them to grow with us. Now, we need to work together. I’d like to see the city have more to offer, which could lead to some voluntary annexation.”
Always keeping one eye focused ahead for Liberty Hill’s future, Hart said he has not taken a lot of time to think about his own except that he would like to do “something different” when he retires.
“I don’t know, maybe teach college or continue to be a mentor to new superintendents,” he said.
Occasionally, he rents a Cessna 172 from the Georgetown airport, loads the family and flies over Central Texas. Whatever the choice for his retirement, Hart said flying airplanes will be part of the plan. On a clear day, the view can’t be beat.