Excellence in academics, personal attention to students is driving LHISD growth

By SHELLY WILKISON

From the last day of school June 7 until last Friday, 354 new students had enrolled in Liberty Hill schools.

While it will take several weeks to determine the number of students the school district is losing this fall, which would bring the total enrollment to a more realistic number, a school official said this week that the pattern of rapid growth is expected to hold.

In his sixth year as superintendent of one of Central Texas’ fastest growing school districts, Dr. Rob Hart says Liberty Hill ISD is ready for the growth — something he could not have said before now.

“Right now, it’s hard to tell what is going out (the number of students not returning),” he said. “But, we know what’s coming in.”

On August 27, students and teachers at three of the district’s five campuses will report to new campuses where more space, improved security and state-of-the art teaching and athletic facilities will be immediately evident.

Hart, who has spent the majority of his days in the past few years working toward the completion of an $86 million facilities improvement program, said the school district is now in a better position to grow.

“We’ve always had a first-class program, and now we have first-class facilities,” he said. “Now, we’re going to step up and get even better.”

According to accountability ratings released by the Texas Commissioner of Education last week, Liberty Hill ISD earned a rating of “Meets Expectations” for the last academic year — a rating based primarily on student performance on the

STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) exam. While the state changed the rating system this year and set new classifications for accountability, Hart said it did not change Liberty Hill’s rate of achievement and success.

Hart said it’s the reputation of academic success that is prompting the growth in the school district.

In fact, if the demographic projections for the area hold true, the new 300,000-square-foot academic building on the campus of the new high school could be at capacity in nine years. When it was first conceived, it was designed to hold about twice the enrollment at that time. Growth in the past year means the capacity will be reached sooner than projected.

But Hart said it is the growth in enrollment at the younger grades that will become an issue sooner.

As early as 2016, school district voters could be considering another bond package to add a new elementary school. Because the growth in the school district is on its east side, property in or near one of the new subdivisions could be a possible site for a new school, he said.

With the opening of new, state-of-the-art schools comes a higher public expectation for success. Hart said district officials share a similar level of expectations and are working on developing ideas for added curriculum and program offerings. With the added space in the new high school this fall, a health sciences curriculum will be introduced and additional classes will be available for students exploring a career in the culinary arts. The new high school also has a choir room in anticipation of forming a school choir at some point.

Perhaps the most visible evidence of growth in the school district is a football stadium that towers over the Liberty Hill landscape to the west.

Hart said the district has found a good balance between its athletic and academic programs.

“We want to give them (students) as many opportunities as we can,” he said. “The majority of our students want to participate in athletics and we notice it especially when the kids come back to school one month early for practice.”

Hart estimated that well over 50 percent of high school students returned to school August 5 for practice in one of the fall sports, band, cheerleading and drill team. He said participation in those activities is positive for a student’s overall high school experience. He said those who participate are more successfull overall.

While the number of students continues to climb, Hart said the challenge for the school district will be to continue to maintain its small-school atmosphere. An environment where teachers and administrators know every student not only benefits the student’s learning experience, but it also improves the overall safety of the campus.

Hart said the new schools are designed for security. Equipped with video cameras throughout, and an emergency lockdown system that can close off portions of the schools, he said he believes the new campuses are better suited to protect students and staff. Additionally, he believes staff members know the families of their students and know how to look for people who might not belong or act suspicious.

Teacher salaries

As the school district works to take care of its students, Hart said taking care of teachers and other employees is high on the priority list this year.

On August 19, the Board of Trustees is expected to receive a recommendation from the Superintendent to raise teacher salaries by an average 3 percent — a pay raise that Hart said is needed to keep Liberty Hill competitive with neighboring districts.

Results of a salary survey conducted recently by the Texas Association of School Boards for LHISD showed that Liberty Hill fell slightly below 95 percent of the market on the salaries it pays professional personnel, Hart said.

“Our goal is to reach 95 percent,” he said. “An average 3 percent raise would help level the playing field.”

Liberty Hill has typically paid slightly less than its neighbors, and districts like Leander and Round Rock are often on the receiving end of Liberty Hill teachers who leave for higher salaries. Hart said even with the proposed pay increase, LHISD will still pay slightly below them.

As is the case statewide, health insurance premiums are increasing. Without a pay increase, local teachers would have to bear the brunt of the increased insurance costs.

A few years ago, LHISD froze teacher salaries at a time when the Legislature implemented significant cuts in funding to public schools. Hart said freezing salaries was a difficult choice at the time, but the alternative was layoffs. During the same time, schools across Central Texas and beyond had to close campuses and lay off workers.

Hart said things are improving locally and funds are available to implement a pay raise that he anticipated could cost the district up to $200,000 in the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. School trustees will have their first look at a proposed budget when they meet August 19.

Hart said three factors are contributing to the district’s ability to raise salaries. Increased enrollment allows the district to earn more state funding through average daily attendance. In 2013, the Legislature also acted to restore much of the funding that it cut in recent years. And finally, property values are up in the school district, which translates to more revenue generated through property taxes.