Accountability key in bond elections

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart knew in 2010 that the bond election for the new high school would not be the district’s last.

He knew the same in 2016, when the district built Rancho Sienna Elementary, and he is saying the current bond package on the November ballot will not meet the need forever.
That’s why he knows accountability is as key to meeting long-term needs as it is to answering near-term ones.

“We always make sure we deliver what we promise,” Hart said. “The worst thing you can do is say you’re going to build this school, this school and this school, then go out and find out you don’t have the money to do that, and I’ve seen that happen in other districts,” Hart said. “When that happens, then you really lose the voters’ trust and taxpayers’ trust and then it makes it extremely difficult to come back and pass one again.”

Despite rumblings on social media, Hart says the district has delivered what was promised with the bond monies approved by taxpayers and has done so under budget.

The 2010 bond election, was for $85,580,000 in bonds for purpose of “…constructing, renovating, designing, acquiring, and equipping of school facilities and the purchase of the necessary sites for school facilities…”.

When the projects were completed, the district had spent $75.4 million on six projects, with $62.2 million of the funds going to the new high school. Other renovation projects included the Intermediate School, the Liberty Hill Elementary kitchen, the Bill Burden Elementary parking lot and conversion of the old high school into a Junior High and the old Intermediate school into the administration offices.

The balance of the bond monies covered soft costs, such as fees for architects and engineers, furniture, easements, permits and other items not specifically included in the construction costs.

In 2016, voters approved a $35 million bond package, worded similarly on the ballot, but going a step further and specifying the construction of a new elementary school and renovations on the Liberty Hill Elementary and Intermediate campuses and the agriculture facility.

Construction costs upon conclusion of the work included $24.8 million on Rancho Sienna Elementary, $2.8 million at Liberty Hill Elementary and $1.96 million on the agriculture facility. As with the 2010 bond, the remainder of the funds covered soft costs for the projects.

After each of the last two bonds, the school district has reported to the voters with a “report card” detailing what was accomplished.

“We also rely on that report card like we’ve done the last two times that says ‘here’s what we did, and we did it under schedule and under budget’,” Hart said.

A point of contention for some voters skeptical of the upcoming bond election is the district’s decision not to realign grade levels following the 2016 bond.

As part of the original plan, the district intended to make each of the elementary campuses kindergarten through fifth grade, but once attendance zones were drawn that didn’t happen.

How the grades were to be divided was not a ballot issue, but a plan the district hoped to implement if the bond passed, Hart said.

“The ballot language is not that detailed,” Hart said. “It was our campaign plans that said what we were going to do with that, and we changed plans to be better stewards of the taxpayers’ money. We were limited in our capacity on what we could do then.”

The district had never drawn attendance zones before, and once that process was done, making the change promoted prior to the bond’s passage would have meant running out of capacity on some campuses even earlier.

“We didn’t go up to fifth grade because had we done that then we would have been doing this a year earlier,” Hart said. “We knew how many kids we had, but since we never had attendance zones before, we didn’t know exactly where they were. When we started drawing attendance zones, that’s when we started realizing if we did it that way we were going to load up Burden even more. If we did that, this bond would have been a year ago and not now.

“What we did is when we started drawing the attendance zones with our demographer, we started laying it out and realized at that point that putting fifth grade at all those elementary campuses would fill Rancho Sienna too soon and would not relieve the burden at Burden. Burden was over 800 (capacity) before we opened Rancho. You couldn’t move in that place, so it didn’t help us enough.”

As an alternative, to buy the district more time before needing more space, the decision was made to keep the set up as it was.

“We went back and ran the numbers again with fourth grade instead of fifth and that worked,” Hart said. “It grew faster than we could keep up with. That’s why we cut it back a grade level. Those are our projections and our ideas of going out and doing it, that’s not lying to people and saying we did something different.”

The change planned for last time around will be implemented this time because the bond includes converting the Intermediate campus into an elementary and construction of a second middle school to handle the sixth through eighth grade classes.

“Now, all we have to do if we change attendance zones is move some lines around and reload some into this other new school,” Hart said of avoiding the issue that complicated the plan in 2016.

The 2018 bond package is to build a new elementary school, a new middle school, convert the Intermediate School into an elementary campus, and add classroom space onto Liberty Hill High School.

The estimated price of the new elementary school, which will house 800 students, is $32.2 million.

The estimated costs of the other projects in the bond proposal are $50.5 million for the new middle school with a 900 capacity; $1.2 million to renovate the Intermediate campus to an elementary school; and $14.7 million to add classroom space onto LHHS.

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