LHISD lowers tax rate, raises salaries in $40 million budget

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By SHELLY WILKISON

School Trustees adopted a $40.5 million budget Monday and set a tax rate that is 7 cents lower than last year.

The budget calls for pay raises for teachers and staff ranging from 4.3 to 7.1 percent. For teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses with up to five years experience, that means a $2,000 annual increase. Those with six to 17 years of experience will see a $2,500 increase. And teachers with 18 years experience, will see a $2,800 bump. The increase is $3,200 for 19 years experience and $3,600 for 20 years.

Other employees will see a 3 percent increase from the midpoint.

The pay increase was partially funded by an increase in state funds as mandated in House Bill 3, but Liberty Hill ISD went beyond that and added funds for veteran teachers. The district also increased its contribution to employee health insurance by $50 per month to $350 per month.

The raises this year will cost the district $1.1 million, with the added benefits costing $300,000 and projected recruitment and retention stipends later on at $337,500.

The pay increase brings the starting salary for a first-year teacher to $47,300 and a teacher with 25 or more years to $56,600.

Payroll accounts for 81 percent of the annual budget.

The district’s tax rate, which was at $1.04 per $100 valuation for Maintenance and Operations and $0.50 for Interest and Sinking (debt service) was reduced by 7 cents on the M&O side to $0.97 bringing the total tax rate to $1.47 per $100 value. The decrease was mandated by the Legislature in an attempt to provide some tax relief for property owners with state funds helping to bridge the gap.

In Liberty Hill, the lower tax rate will produce higher revenues due to higher property values. Under the new tax rate, a property valued at $200,000 would pay $2,940.

The district projects total revenue at $40.8 million, with $27.3 million of that generated by local property taxes, $12.3 million coming from the state, and the remainder from federal and other local sources. With expenses approved at $40.5 million, there is a $.3 million projected increase to fund balance.

Trustees held a public hearing Monday prior to the vote on the budget and tax rate, but no one addressed the Board.

As of Monday, enrollment in LHISD was at 4,900 students. Superintendent Steve Snell said the number is already higher than projections by the school district’s contracted demographer.

“The high is the new moderate,” Snell said, referring to the demographer’s projected Oct. 30 snapshot that predicted enrollment numbers that were exceeded in the first week of school.

For example, at the elementary level the “high” projection for Oct. 30 was at 1946 compared to Monday’s actual enrollment of 1987. At the Intermediate School, Principal Josh Curtis confirmed that enrollment reached 818 on Monday — the number projected for October. At Liberty Hill Junior High, there were 717 students this week with a projection only 33 students higher, and at Liberty Hill High School the actual enrollment was only 10 students shy of the projection of 1,373.

“The ‘high’ is projected at 11 percent growth, but it seems more prudent to predict at 13 percent growth,” Snell said, noting that the district is nearing maximum capacity on most levels.

Snell said the study, conducted by School District Strategies of Dallas, also showed the price point of new homes is dropping somewhat. The new median home price in LHISD is down by 10.6 percent from the same time last year with the new median at $288.084.

“Developers who intended to build homes on larger lots are now building four (homes) per acre,” he said.

From the third quarter of 2018 to the second quarter of 2019, another record was reached in new home construction. There were 1,250 starts and 972 closings. Rancho Sienna continues to be the top producing subdivision. The new home market is project to produce 5,900 new homes over the next five years and more than 10,500 homes by 2028.

The study showed .63 school-age children per household in the second quarter of 2019. LHISD climbed from 18th to 17 largest district in the Greater Austin area. The district could see enrollment increase by 4,900 to 5,300 students over the next 10 years.

Drug Testing
Assistant Superintendent Brad Mansfield told Trustees that the high school is replacing the saliva test with a urine test to detect drug use by students involved in extra-curricular activities or students with parking permits.

“We used the saliva test, but it wasn’t real reliable,” Mansfield said. “It didn’t give us a longer time frame of use and it didn’t serve the true purpose, which was a deterrent for kids not to use drugs.”

The district will continue using the same company it contracted with for saliva testing, and the costs for urine tests are expected to be less.

Mansfield said the first series of urine tests will be in September, and more students than normal will be tested. Students are selected at random.

“There will be a group of kids escorted down to an area in the school to be determined,” Mansfield said, describing the process.

Trained staff from the company will monitor the outside of restrooms and students will “go in restroom alone.”

Mansfield said to keep students from using things in the restroom to taint the sample, water will be covered and an additive will be placed in the toilet so toilet water can’t be used to taint the test.

In other business Monday, the Board heard presentations from:
– Dr. Toni Hicks, assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, regarding the District and Campus Accountability Ratings (see related story on Page A5.)
– Casey Sledge regarding ongoing construction projects in the district, and
– LHISD Police Chief Mezayek with an update on the development of the department.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, former Trustee Scott Lindquist expressed concerns about the school district’s student dress code, asking that it be re-evaluated.

The Board met in executive session for an hour and 40 minutes, and reconvened into open meeting to approve the employment of Emily Newman at Liberty Hill Elementary and Sara Robertson at Liberty Hill Intermediate.

The Board also accepted the resignations of Lori Lauper from the Intermediate school and Leanette Smith from Liberty Hill Elementary.

Trustees also approved a special education settlement agreement.

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