LHISD employees will see 2% raise

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By SHELLY WILKISON

Liberty Hill school trustees on Monday adopted a $36.19 million budget that includes a 2 percent pay increase for employees.

Trustees voted unanimously to maintain the current tax rate of $1.54 per $100 property value. The rate will generate $22,659,868 — income that represents 64 percent of the district’s total projected revenue of $37,171,556.

Liberty Hill ISD also receives money from the state in accordance with an average daily attendance funding formula, as well as from the federal government.

The district’s property tax for Maintenance & Operations (M&O) is unchanged from fiscal 2014 — $1.04 per $100 property value.

LHISD Chief Financial Officer Frank Watson said the total taxable value in the school district is $1.475 billion, which represents a decrease due to the anticipated approval of voters in November on a $10,000 homestead exemption.

Watson said the projected exemption “held us level” with regard to property values and the revenue that will be generated from the current tax rate.

“Property owners won’t be paying any more taxes this year than they did last year on an average home,” Watson said. “Most people’s taxes should stay level.”

Because trustees voted in 2014 to refund the bond debt, it lowered the debt service payments enabling the district to keep the Interest & Sinking (debt) rate of $0.50 per $100 value.

“We’re getting $900,000 more than what is necessary for this year’s (bond payment),” Watson said. “That money will be used for payment for a future bond issue.”

The school district will ask voters to approve a bond package in 2016 to build a new elementary school. A site is already approved at Rancho Sienna for the new campus, which could open in fall 2017.

“By taking these steps, we won’t have to increase the tax rate when we do the next bond issue,” Watson said, adding the school district had reached the cap on the I&S rate. As more property comes onto the tax rolls with new home and business construction, taxable value will increase.

Personnel

Personnel represents more than 82 percent of the school district’s budget this year.

All school district employees will receive a 2 percent pay increase beginning with the September paychecks.

Watson said the raise is intended to keep Liberty Hill as competitive as possible with such school districts as Leander, Round Rock, Georgetown and Pflugerville.

During the district’s opening convocation of employees Tuesday morning, Superintendent Rob Hart asked employees hired away from the four larger districts to stand. Dozens of teachers stood in response.

“They all pay more, but when you see the numbers coming here, it’s clear that they are taking less money to do that,” Watson said.

For most Liberty Hill teachers, the 2 percent raise will mean an additional $950 in 2015-2016.

He said as the district grows, it has moved away from trying to compete with Florence, Jarrell and Burnet when it comes to professional salaries.

In preparation for the start of school next week, the district hired 70 new employees. While the majority of new hires are filling vacancies, many are newly-created positions. Watson said the new positions are the result of growth in enrollment.

Watson is projecting enrollment at 3,295 for the school year — a figure he said is “conservative.” In 2014-2015, the budget was built around 2,950 and mid-way through the year the board voted to amend the number to 3,050.

New employees are discovering a lack of rental property and affordable housing for purchase as they try to relocate to Liberty Hill from neighboring communities.

“We have some looking all over for a place to live. The price of a home is high (for a teacher’s salary),” he said. “We need more places where young people can afford to live.

“The apartments (Liberty Trails Apartment Homes) have been a big asset to teachers and staff. Quite a few have been able to move into them,” he said.

Watson said the gap between LHISD employee pay and the cost of housing in the area should fix itself over time.

Hart, who is in his eighth year as superintendent, will receive a 6 percent pay increase to $180,000.

Watson said Hart’s salary was the only one that was increased higher than 2 percent.

At the new salary, Hart is still paid less than the superintendents of the competing districts. In Regions 12 and 13, the average salary for a superintendent is $184,000.

With the number of new positions, the pay raise and increased costs of insurance, the district’s personnel budget is up 16 percent.

Watson said another contributing factor is the expiration of a program started years ago whereby some LHISD personnel retired from the district and were hired by a company that then contracted their services to the school district. Watson said the plan, which allowed for the employees to immediately be rehired by LHISD without benefits, was proposed by the former school superintendent and was followed by about 12 employees. He said the last remaining contracts are expiring, which is contributing somewhat to the increase in payroll costs as those employees are being replaced by workers who will receive benefits.

Watson said in addition to increased personnel expenses, the new budget is also higher in the areas of travel and supplies.

With increased enrollment, more bus routes have been added. And it takes more buses to transport students to other cities for ball games and other athletic and academic events. The district will purchase three new buses this year.

Watson said it takes seven buses to transport Liberty Hill students to an away football game.

He said the budgets for athletics and academics are each 10 percent higher than the previous year due to growth in enrollment and increased participation in athletics.

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