LHISD employees will receive 1% pay increase

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Last budget cycle, thanks to an infusion of funds from the Texas Legislature, Liberty Hill ISD and districts across the state were able to give sizable raises to teachers.

In Liberty Hill, teachers received raises between four and seven percent, and all other staff received a three percent raise.

Fast forward to today and prospects look much leaner for all school districts across Texas. The LHISD Board of Trustees was faced with that reality Monday, voting to approve a one-percent increase for staff from the market midpoint. The across the board raise is expected to increase the district’s payroll by $345,235.

“I’m very happy with the work of Rosanna Guerrero, our CFO,” said Superintendent Steve Snell. “She has been very diligent so we can maximize teacher compensation as much as possible. But I’m disappointed that there’s just not more funding available to compensate our teachers.

“Last year, the Texas Legislature made huge steps with House Bill 3 and all teachers got between a five percent and seven percent raise, and although that’s a great raise I feel they’re still underpaid. This year, the money’s just not there. I’m just disappointed we can’t do more, and I think the Board would share that thought.”

In addition to the one percent, the Board approved a plan that would potentially include future consideration of a one percent, one-time stipend later in the year if the budget allows.

The lack of additional funds, along with the unknowns of how the district may be forced to make adjustments due to the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the decision, as well as long-term planning to make sure the district could afford an ever-growing staff.

“Because we’re growing so fast we’re going to have to continue to add staff and we just want to add staff appropriately so we don’t strain the budget with the staff we add as well,” Snell said. “We’re roughly at 83 to 84 percent of our funding going to staff salaries.”

The Board is expected to approve its final district budget in August.

High school price set
The planned expansion of Liberty Hill High School, one project in the $98.6 million bond package approved by voters in 2018, has an official price tag.

The Board of Trustees approved the guaranteed maximum price for the construction portion of the project at $12,490,132.

“We were blessed with this project and our middle school project with a highly competitive bid market,” Snell said. “That keeps the costs down, so they will be able to complete the high school, middle school and the elementary school all on budget. We’re even able to continue to look for more cost savings along the way.”

The original estimate of the high school renovations when the bond was proposed was $14.7 million, which included both hard and soft costs. The $12.49 million approved is construction only.

Two of the three classroom wings currently at the high school will be expanded, adding 21 classrooms and two fully-equipped science labs.

The culinary arts addition will be set up with six student stations that include a refrigerator, sink, oven, cooktop, microwave and cabinet storage. Shared dishwashers and a teacher demonstration table will be set up in the middle of the room.

There is a dance addition consisting of a dance studio, teacher’s office, storage room, locker rooms for dance and cheer, as well as shared restrooms. The dance studio will have a wood floor with mirrors and dance bars on the wall. The construction type and finishes will match the existing building.

Renovations are planned in the Career and Technology Education (CTE) wing to accommodate expansion of existing programs. The renovations will create separate CNA and Pharmacy Tech labs.

The existing computer labs will be renovated to become CTE classrooms. The robotics program will move over from its current home in the Fine Arts wing to the CTE wing.

The project is expected to be completed in time for the 2021-2022 school year, the same time the new middle school is scheduled to open.

Surveys
The district recently sent out surveys to four different community groups – students, parents, staff and the community at large – to gather information and opinions on plans to return to school in the fall.

A total of 2,239 responses were received from parents, 450 from staff, and 763 from students.

“The response was phenomenal, we were very impressed with the response,” Snell said. “We’re sitting here and planning at 100 miles per hour to open school and make it safe for our kids, but we felt we needed to slow down and ask our community and see what they wanted from us to make sure our plans are in alignment with that.”

Among parents, the overwhelming majority favored a return to the traditional model. A hybrid face-to-face and online learning model was the second choice, and less than 10 percent favored an online model for the next academic year.

The survey results also listed safety measures, parental concerns for return such as virus spread and considerations such as parent work schedules.

“They had a lot of the same concerns that we do,” he said. “They want to come back to school, the parents want to send their kids back to school and the teachers want to come back to school, but they just want to be safe.”

Students also overwhelmingly favored a return to the classroom and listed social distancing as a primary concern and safety and mental health as items for consideration.

Less than 5 percent of the staff that responded said they were extremely anxious about returning, with 53 percent responding with a one or two on a one to five scale, with one being not anxious about returning. Fifty-two percent said they are comfortable returning to work with another 42 percent saying they are comfortable returning with precautions in place.

Snell said the survey results help the district gauge the concerns and feelings of everyone involved, but with so many unknowns he can’t say what the plans for returning will be.

“By this time we’d expect to have more information on the virus and we just don’t have it,” he said. “We’re still running with the information we have and looking for direction from the Commissioner (of Education).”

He said people will likely be asked again later to respond to a second survey.

“We’ll come back, probably toward the end of July and ask our community the same things and see how the world has changed if any,” he said. “Lately as we’ve opened up, the corona cases have spiked and that’s troublesome because we want to make sure whatever our plans are they don’t make people sick.”

The district faces many challenges like social distancing in classrooms and on buses, and protocols for when a student or teacher is confirmed to have the virus.

“There are a lot of unknowns, but hopefully with the safety features we will have in place we can keep people healthy,” Snell said.

He added that the patience of the community as plans are made is important and appreciated with so many questions left to answer.

“We’re going to wait until late July, based on guidance from the state and TEA, to release those final plans,” Snell said. “The community can rest assured we are working diligently to make sure we come back to school and our kids are safe.”

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