By SHELLY WILKISON
Liberty Hill school trustees voted unanimously Monday to give employees an average 3 percent pay increase — a move that will make local salaries more competitive with area schools.
The pay increase is part of a $30 million budget for fiscal 2013 that will require a tax increase of $0.09 per $100 property value to pay for bond debt. Trustees adopted the budget and the tax rate during their regular monthly meeting on Monday.
The tax rate for debt service (Interest & Sinking) will increase from the current $0.41 per $100 value to $0.50 — the maximum allowed rate. The tax rate for Maintenance & Operations will remain unchanged at $1.04 per $100 value — the maximum rate allowed by law. Both rates combined bring the total tax rate to $1.54 per $100 value, which is expected to generate more than $17.5 million.
“The first few years (after the adoption of a bond package, rates go up. But as the population and values go up, the rates can come down,” said Liberty Hill ISD Business Manager Frank Watson.
In 2010, school district voters approved an $86 million bond package to build a new high school and athletic facilities, as well as renovate and expand existing campuses. School will begin in those new facilities on Tuesday. In 2012, the district increased the debt service tax rate and the average taxpayer paid $619 more in school taxes. This year, the owner of an average-valued residence ($241,001), will pay an additional $244.54 in school taxes.
Total revenue, which includes monies generated from local property taxes, state funding based on average daily attendance, and federal funding, is estimated at $29.8 million. With a $30 million spending plan, which includes debt service, the school district will be operating a deficit budget requiring the transfer of $356,000 from the Fund Balance to pay for general operations.
Operating with a deficit budget has become more common for Liberty Hill ISD and other districts since the state adopted funding formulas in 2005 commonly referred to as “Robin Hood” designed to take funds from wealthy districts and reallocate them to poorer schools. Watson said in the past three fiscal years Liberty Hill has had to dip into its fund balance to the tune of about $700,000 each year.
“This is not where we want to be, but it is an improvement,” Watson told the Board.
Watson later told The Independent that the district “is on the verge of being considered a wealthy school district.” If Liberty Hill did not accept transfer students, the wealth per student would reclassify it as a Chapter 41 district and require that Liberty Hill pay a portion of local revenue back to the state.
Liberty Hill schools accepts transfer students every year without charging tuition or fees. Watson said this year the district will have about 250 transfer students of the projected 3,000 students enrolled. Transfer students are interviewed and principals review their records and background before recommending them for admission, and their status is reviewed each year. Watson said the current number of transfer students is not placing a burden on school resources.
State funding for the district will be based on average daily attendance of 2,875, Watson said. He said officials considered an enrollment of 3,000 and adjusted it to reflect an attendance rate of 97 percent.
About 82 percent of the new budget will be spent on employee salaries and benefits. This year, personnel costs are 9.45 percent higher than the current fiscal year primarily because the Board approved a new pay scale for employees along with an average 3 percent pay increase.
The pay increase, which will show up for the first time on the September paychecks, was needed to make Liberty Hill ISD more competitive in the market, Watson said. A survey completed this summer by Texas Association of School Boards at a cost of $10,000 showed local teacher pay was below that of colleagues in school districts within a 50-mile radius of Liberty Hill.
By adjusting a pay scale and providing an average 3 percent pay increase, Liberty Hill employees will now be paid in the upper 90 percent of the market. The cost to make those adjustments is $1.577 million compared to $500,000 in previous years when the district has provided a step increase in pay.
“This is a lump sum jump when we adjust the payscale, and it will cost more than it has in the past (to give a pay raise),” Watson said. “But in recent years, we have bit the bullet and held salaries down. Now, we want to maintain our penny pinching on supplies, but reward our people.”
He said that employees who leave LHISD for higher salaries commonly go to Round Rock, Leander, Georgetown or Pflugerville. By raising local salaries, Liberty Hill will still pay less than those districts, but gets closer to the mark.
Watson said the last time the district participated in a salary survey was 22 years ago, and added that it is something that should be done every five to seven years.
He said for most teachers, the pay raise will mean an additional $1,530 compared to pay increases in the past where the raise meant an additional $300-$700.
“Of course anytime we do this (provide a pay raise), they (other districts) do this,” Watson said. “But I feel good about where this puts us.”
The survey showed LHISD administrators were also paid lower than the market rate, but the difference was not significant, Watson said. He said the scale for administrative salaries will not require a significant adjustment.
The Superintendent’s salary did fall lower than the market.
“Within a 50-mile radius, you have superintendents making $300,000-$350,000 a year,” Watson said. “Right down the road, some are making 30 percent more than he (Liberty Hill Superintendent Rob Hart) is, and some with less experience.”
Watson said there is money allocated in the new budget for a pay raise for the Superintendent, but any decision will be made by the school board. Hart’s employment contract was renewed this year. His current salary is $120,904.
With new and expanded facilities and a growing enrollment, increased personnel costs also reflect the addition of 19 new employees for a total cost of $570,000.
The district is also paying half the cost of a $70 per employee increase in monthly insurance premiums at a total cost of $115,500.
With new and expanded facilities, the budget adopted this week includes a significant increase in allocations for utilities.
Watson said the district paid about $1 million for utilities in the current fiscal year. In the new budget, $350,000 more is allocated for utilities — primarily due to the addition of the new high school and athletic facilities.
In other business Monday, the Board created two additional teaching positions at the elementary level.
Hart said enrollment projections at the fourth grade level show one new teacher will be needed for Bill Burden Elementary School. And at Liberty Hill Elementary School, an additional kindergarten teaching position was created. Hart said the additional positions are needed to stay in compliance with a state-mandated student-teacher ratio of 22-1.
The Board also agreed to finance two new school buses as part of an ongoing effort to add two new vehicles to the fleet each year.
“The fleet is in good shape now,” Hart said. “We know we will add more routes at some point, and it takes more busines for us to travel.”
Also Monday, the Board heard a report by Curriculum Director Claudeane Braun regarding the district’s accountability ratings. A new rating system was put in place statewide this year and Liberty Hill ISD “Met Standard.” She said the district met expectations in 50 of 51 categories. The category it did not meet was Special Education Writing.
At Liberty Hill Intermediate School, the only standard not met was Hispanic Science — a weakness Mrs. Braun said was due to vocabulary differences.
Teachers across the district will be working to close those gaps in the coming school year. The Board adopted a District Improvement Plan on Monday, which sets goals for improvement in many areas and across all campuses.
The Board also adopted a Code of Conduct that includes a few changes as recommended by TASB as a result of legislative changes.
In the new school year, which begins Tuesday, salvia is considered a controlled substance. Salvia is a plant that when ingested or smoked can cause hallucinogenic effects.
Also different in the Code of Conduct is the removal of switchblades from the prohibited weapons list that requires mandatory expulsion.
The Board also heard an update on district construction projects. Contractors reported that all facilities will be ready for students next Tuesday. Final inspections for occupancy are scheduled later this week.
Hart said traffic lights at the new high school will be blinking yellow on the first few days of school until Texas Department of Transportation can complete a traffic study. He said he expects lights to be fully functional as early as Sept. 2. In the meantime, Williamson County Sheriff’s deputies will be present to assist with traffic flow on the first days of school.