Committee recommends bonds for 2 new schools, high school expansion
By SHELLY WILKISON
Enrollment projections show all Liberty Hill campuses will exceed capacity by 2021. That’s why a 16-member committee studying Liberty Hill school facilities is recommending the Board of Trustees call a bond election for November to build a new elementary school, a new middle school, and a classroom addition onto Liberty Hill High School.
Under the plan discussed in a bond workshop Monday, a new 800-capacity elementary school would be built at Santa Rita Ranch, and renovations would be made to the current Intermediate School to convert it to Liberty Hill’s fifth elementary school.
Liberty Hill Junior High would become a middle school, and a second middle school would be built on the east side of the school district. Both middle schools would house grades six through eight.
A classroom addition to the high school, which would include science lab additions, a dance studio and robotics lab, would increase capacity by 500 students bringing total capacity from 1,600 to 2,100.
The estimated price tag for the new facilities and renovation of existing buildings is $96.7 million. District officials say the property tax rate will not increase.
Driving the need for additional facilities is enrollment growth, which by 2027 could be 8,373 — more than double the 2017-2018 enrollment of 4,087.
“Looking at demographic reports, looks like this is going to be the trend,” said LHISD Board President Clay Cole, referencing the possibility of holding a bond election for new schools every two to three years. “We just feel like it’s very important to our community that we invest the time to get it right.”
A report provided in June by the district’s demographic firm — School District Strategies of Dallas — showed projected net growth over three years to be between 1,395 to 1,677. Over 10 years, that growth could be as high as 4,965 students. The five-year average annual growth rate in a high growth scenario is 11.5 percent. Even with moderate growth, the average rate is 9.9 percent.
At that growth rate, the three existing elementary schools — Bill Burden, Liberty Hill Elementary and Rancho Sienna — with a combined capacity of 2,100 students will reach 2,270 by the start of school in 2020. Adding a new elementary school at Santa Rita Ranch and converting the Intermediate campus to an elementary school would create space for 3,592 pre-kindergarten through fifth graders, and capacity would be reached at 2023-2024.
Superintendent Rob Hart said elementary classroom space is an immediate need.
“Santa Rita (elementary) is a priority because we have to have that classroom space year after next,” Hart said. “Middle school is another year down the road, and the plan is to have that open by 2021. Santa Rita Elementary by 2020, new middle school by 2021.”
At the middle school level, adding a new middle school campus and converting the Junior High to a middle school would provide space for 1,650 to 1,800 students in grades six through eight. Currently, the Intermediate campus, which houses grades five and six, has a total capacity of 759 using portable buildings. The Junior High campus, which was built in 1999 as a high school, has a capacity of 900.
The committee considered converting the Intermediate campus into a middle school rather than an elementary school, but Hart said the facilities would not be equitable to those at the current Junior High.
“Converting it to a middle school wasn’t preferable because it didn’t help with capacity, and would create some other problems,” he said. “It’s much easier to convert it to an elementary school because it will take minor renovations.”
Four kindergarten classrooms will be created on that campus.
Hart said the location for the new middle school would be determined after the bond election. With the new middle school located on the east side of the district along with Rancho Sienna and Santa Rita elementary schools, those campuses would be feeder schools into Liberty Hill’s second high school. According to demographic projections, the majority of growth in LHISD is on the east side.
Liberty Hill High School, which opened in 2013, has a capacity of 1,600 students and it will exceed that in 2020, according to enrollment projections. The proposed bond package this November will include a classroom expansion that will create space for 500 more students. It will include science lab additions, a dance studio and robotics lab/classroom.
If voters approve the bond package, the expanded high school will exceed its new 2,100 capacity in 2023. Hart said that within three years, voters could be considering another bond package to build a second high school.
Because of the rapid growth in property values since LHISD voters passed a $35 million bond package in 2016, Hart said the Interest & Sinking tax rate of $0.50 per $100 property value has the capacity now to fund the $96.7 million proposal.
LHISD is at the maximum tax rate allowed at $1.54 per $100 valuation. Of that, $1.04 goes toward Maintenance & Operations and the revenue generated from the $0.50 goes toward debt service. The rate hasn’t changed since 2010.
“After the 2010 bond election (that built LHHS), we maximized that. We went up to 50 cents to pay for that. So for several years we couldn’t do anything bond wise because we were already at 50 cents and it took every bit of those 50 pennies to pay for what we had,” Hart explained. “But as property values went up, it took fewer pennies to pay for that. So that’s where our capacity comes from.
“So by 2016 when we ran that one, we could afford the $35 million — that’s where our 50 cents would allow us to go without changing the tax rate, because we can’t,” he added.
Hart said the district’s financial advisor shows the same $0.50 tax rate could cover a bond package up to $106 million because the property values have increased so fast. However, that’s not being considered right now.
“We’re one of those fast growth schools now, so you’ve got to keep doing it (build more schools),” Hart said. “Two to three years from now it will be another elementary and a new high school. By that time, some of those subdivisions out west will come on line, so you’ve got to look at that, too.”
During Monday’s workshop, board members discussed a strategy in use in other fast-growth school districts to propose a bond amount above the current capacity to provide more flexibility to build schools as they’re needed. While that idea wasn’t part of the committee’s discussion leading up to its recommendation, board members heard from the district’s architectural firm, Huckabee Associates, about the advantages of doing that in future bond elections.
Hart said in fast-growth school districts like Frisco, Prosper and even Jarrell, the community might pass a bond election for well beyond its bond capacity and sell those bonds when they are able.
“It allows the district to have some room without having to go to voters every two years for a bond issue,” said Daren Kirbo of Huckabee. “It gives flexibility to fast-growth districts whenever they need to plan for the growth and can afford it, to go ahead and build as they can.”
Hart said the Liberty Hill community isn’t ready for this yet, but it should be an option for discussion at the time of the next bond election in a few years. He said the language on the election ballot would simply allow for “future schools.”
Although no action was taken during the workshop, members of the facilities committee shared their views on the proposal, which Hart said was approved by a unanimous vote.
“We came up with a package that we thought was something the community could support. It was something the community would be willing to support right now,” said Committee Member Glen Reid.
Lance Dean, another member of the committee and Executive Director of the City’s Economic Development Corp., said Monday that the bond proposal is a positive step for Liberty Hill.
“Talking from a resident standpoint, the tax rate is already maxed out, so I’m for it,” Dean said. “You can’t not sell this. It’s not going to effect a person’s pocketbook. But it does effect my student.”
Dean said that the city is seeing the beginnings of more commercial growth, which will help offset the tax burden on residential taxpayers.
Monday’s school board meeting was a special called meeting, which included the bond workshop and personnel matters.
Although no action can be taken in a workshop, Trustees did meet in executive session for about 10 minutes and returned to accept resignations and approve the employment of new teachers and administrators.
The Board approved the resignation of LHHS Assitant Principal D’Onda Kristan and her husband, Mike Kristan. Mike Kristan has been a teacher and baseball coach at the high school.
Among the new employees approved were Dalissa Brandenburg as a teacher at Bill Burden; Kristin Hutcherson, a special education teacher at the junior high; Monica Miller as Assistant Principal at the high school replacing Kristan; Katrina Tomlin, a teacher at Bill Burden; Erica Walker, a teacher at Bill Burden; and Justin Zimerman, assistant band director at the Intermediate campus.