By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The Stevens family’s oldest child is one of the 393 transfer students in Liberty Hill Independent School District. He attends kindergarten now, and while his parents want to see him one day graduate from Liberty Hill High School, they also want to keep their home. Doing both might become impossible.
The Stevens live in Rio Ancho Ranch, a neighborhood straddling the boundary between the Liberty Hill ISD and Burnet Consolidated Independent School District.
A little over 700 yards to the east of their home is the beginning of Liberty Hill’s district, and three miles to the east is Liberty Hill High School.
When they built their home here four years ago, Cole Stevens says they knew that they would pay taxes to Burnet CISD. He also knew that they could send their children to Liberty Hill schools anyway, thanks to the district’s policy of open enrollment allowing out-of-district students.
Now he worries the policy’s end is imminent.
Liberty Hill Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart says that while open enrollment is “currently beneficial to the district,” skyrocketing property values and classrooms maxing out both have the potential to tip the scales against it in the coming years.
“We never made any promises that it’ll be there forever,” he said.
The school board considers the transfer policy every May, when updates to the numbers that determine their designation in state funding charters are released. Hart said that if the board decided to end it, they could pursue options such as a grandfather clause to protect existing transfer students.
Any change in policy might have its most immediate effect in border neighborhoods like Rio Ancho, where about half of the families would be effectively locked into the Burnet CISD.
“I don’t think we could sell our house if that happened,” said one mother of two in the neighborhood who asked to remain anonymous.
Three years ago she and her family chose to build their home in the area because of the nearby Liberty Hill schools. Her daughter at the time successfully enrolled in Bill Burden. Soon after, her son was approved to enroll in kindergarten.
They both attended Liberty Hill schools until this year, when her son was denied enrollment for 2nd grade. Now every morning they wait together for the Burnet CISD bus to pick him up around 7 a.m. Then she drives her daughter to Liberty Hill Intermediate School.
“We’re a split household,” she says. “We have Panthers gear from Liberty Hill and Bulldogs gear,” referring to the two schools’ mascots.
The situation motivated her and her husband to try to move. They started building a new house inside the Liberty Hill district, and put their Rio Ancho home on the market.
But no one bought it, and they had to give up the new house — along with the money they put into it.
She said that if Liberty Hill were to end its open enrollment, they would again try to move into the district and sell their home.
“But it’s a two-story home, and the only people who would buy it are families with kids,” she said. “And why would someone buy it if their kids couldn’t attend the better rated schools?”
Until then, they plan for their son to re-apply to Liberty Hill next year.
Out of the 75 homes in the neighborhood’s Burnet side, which was the first phase to be built, 58 percent preferred Liberty Hill ISD to Burnet CISD, according to a survey Stevens and his wife circulated.
“We knew there was a risk they could always close it, but everyone we talked to said they wouldn’t do that anytime soon,” said one father of a Liberty Hill Intermediate School student who asked to remain anonymous. “We love our schools, and my daughter loves her friends in class.”
He added that they would send their children to private schools if Liberty Hill ended their open enrollment policy.
Almost all echoed Stevens when he said, “No one foresaw how quickly Liberty Hill would grow”— and that includes the school board.
Last month the Board of Trustees were surprised to discover hundreds more students signed up than had been projected by demographers in the spring, when enrollment measured 3,666. It now sits at 3,990.
“We’ve never had anything like that before,” Hart said at the meeting.
The unexpected growth forced the school board to approve the addition of 11 more teaching positions.
Originally, the proposed budget called for 25 new teaching and staff positions, many of which were needed to comply with a state-mandated 22 to 1 student-teacher ratio in grades kindergarten through four. Following last month’s revelation, however, the budget ultimately passed included 36 new positions.
The challenge of keeping staff and classrooms in pace with the growth is one reason the board might opt to end the open enrollment policy, Hart said, “we might just flat run out of room.”
Voters approved a $35 million bond for the district in 2016, most of which went to building the new Rancho Sienna Elementary School. Hart has stated that within two years, the district could be considering another bond election to build another elementary school.
But in this environment, additional students from out of the district can prove an outsized boon, Hart said.
“Chapter 41 gives us a strong reason to have open enrollment,” he said.
Commonly referred to as “The Robin Hood” plan, the law makes provisions for wealthier school districts to share their local tax revenue with property-poor school districts.
Normally the amount of funding schools receive from the state depends on its district’s wealth per student. A district with more students and less property value will receive more in funding than a district with fewer students and more property value.
The “Robin Hood” measure triggers when the district’s ratio between property wealth and attendance reaches the point when it could spend $514,000 per student. The district then becomes a recapture district, and begins paying the state instead of receiving funding. The more the district exceeds the threshold, the more it pays.
Hart says this poses a particular challenge in districts where exploding property values outpace any growth in enrollment, such as sparsely populated districts in West Texas where oil is discovered or fracking operations began.
LHISD’s roughly 3,700 homes saw an average increase of 7 percent in value over last year, according to numbers released in April from the Williamson County Appraisal District.
The district’s wealth per weighted-average-daily-attendance is $362,614, according to the district’s business office.
While Liberty Hill does not yet qualify as a recapture district, it is in the nearest category to it, and administrators have taken several measures to stop it from becoming one.
Continuing the acceptance of transfer students is one such measure, Hart says, as they add to the schools’ enrollment counts without adding any additional property value to the district.
But, he says, if Liberty Hill were to tip over into becoming a recapture district, “transfer students wouldn’t help too much”— and that could spell the end for open enrollment.
The financial reason is also why Hart says the district would probably not ever consider accepting tuition as a requirement for out-of-district families.
“If we took tuition, then as far as Chapter 41 is concerned, we don’t have any transfer students at all. They just wouldn’t count anymore,” he said.
The idea was one that families in Rio Ancho had proposed, saying that they understood that transfer students might be expensive.
Stevens offered the suggestion during a public comment at Liberty Hill ISD’s board meeting in August. Specifically his request was for the board to “allow an exception to Rio Ancho to pay tuition for our kids, and to be treated as in-district students.”
“No one is blaming the schools,” Stevens told The Independent. “We just want to know what will happen, and to prepare.”
His plan before then was to request Burnett CISD to release the neighborhood, so that “the ball would be in Liberty Hill’s court” to annex them. He and his wife spoke over the phone with Burnet Superintendent Keith McBurnett, but said the district was not interested.
McBurnett told The Independent this week that his administration and BCISD’s Board of Trustees would consider any petition if submitted properly, but that currently the extent of his knowledge of the issue was the phone call with Stevens, and separately, an email from another family in Rio Ancho saying that they did not want to be annexed by Liberty Hill.
“We’ve not received a petition, which would need metes and bounds and signatures,” he said. He added that he has only ever heard of a school district releasing an area when it contains no students, families or houses.
Stevens says the district is not interested because of the taxable value of the neighborhood. “And honestly, that’s what we expected,” he said.
Now, he says they just want to know what will happen.