New plan brings equity to elementary schools, delays need for bond issue
By SHELLY WILKISON
To maintain equity between schools and delay the need for another bond election to build more facilities, Liberty Hill ISD administrators are recommending that each of the three elementary schools serve grades Pre-Kindergarten through four beginning with the start of school in August.
Grades five and six will continue to be housed at Liberty Hill Intermediate School.
The change comes as administrators are planning for the fall opening of Liberty Hill’s third elementary school — Rancho Sienna Elementary. Currently under construction, voters said yes to a $35 million bond issue in May 2016 to build the campus in the Rancho Sienna subdivision along with some other projects.
The Board of Trustees, which heard the proposed plan for school boundaries for the first time Feb. 8, will meet Feb. 23 to give final approval. In advance of that vote, Superintendent Rob Hart and Assistant Superintendent Chad Pirtle met with The Independent this week to explain the process used to establish the boundaries.
Hart said the original idea was to divide the district geographically, assigning students in grades Pre-K through five at each of the three campuses, and placing sixth grade students at the Intermediate school. In light of ongoing enrollment growth, demographers seeking the most up-to-date information started the detailed process of researching neighborhood data and enrollment projections in January.
“We had two goals,” said Pirtle. “Equity (between the campuses) and fiscal responsibility. When you see the equity we’ve been able to produce, and you see that we’re going to be able to put off by two years when we need our next bond…for the whole community it outweighs moving fifth grade to elementary campuses.”
Pirtle said the research, which was conducted by the firm School District Strategies of Dallas, involved counting the number of elementary age students by grade level in each home districtwide, looking at enrollment history and projections based on new home construction, home sales, and planned development. That data was then merged with information about economically disadvantaged students and ethnicity of the school population to establish a fair balance between campuses. Bus transportation issues were also considered.
After all the information was compiled based on elementary schools that were Pre-K through grade five, administrators were taken aback by the numbers.
The first attempt at school boundaries, which fell along US Highway 183 and State Highway 29, didn’t shape up as anticipated, Hart said.
A disproportionate number of minorities and economically disadvantaged students lived in the zone for Liberty Hill Elementary. And the original lines didn’t go far enough to relieve overcrowding at Bill Burden Elementary.
Administrators say the numbers at Burden Elementary are a top consideration. Even today, the campus that was built for 800 students has about 900. The Stonewall Ranch subdivision is not built out and demographers anticipate another phase of home building.
“We needed to relieve as much as we could off Burden,” Hart said. “Eventually, Stonewall (home construction) is going to kick back up.”
The lines were moved again to find a more equitable division, but with fifth graders at each campus, the numbers pushed the schools to capacity quicker.
“If we had stuck with the original plan, we would be doing a bond issue in 2018, and we didn’t want to do that,” said Hart. “It’s too much too quick.”
Hart said the study showed new home sales in Rancho Sienna and Santa Rita alone will generate about 80 new elementary students per year. When that number is combined with other new residential developments on the east side of the district, demographers predicted 112 new students annually in that area.
Considering current numbers and the projections, the new Rancho Sienna Elementary with fifth graders would have exceeded capacity in 2020. Both Liberty Hill Elementary and Bill Burden Elementary would also exceed capacity that year, while the Intermediate campus housing only sixth grade would be under-utilized at 45 percent.
To have a school ready for use in 2020 would have required a bond election in 2018.
Hart said he sent demographers back to the drawing board to see what the campuses would look like if Pre-K through fourth grades were at the elementary schools, and fifth and sixth stayed at the Intermediate. The numbers, he said, are more reasonable.
Under that scenario, which will be recommended to Trustees for approval next week, Burden’s enrollment in 2017 would be 595 and is projected to reach capacity in 2024.
Liberty Hill Elementary, with a capacity of 500, would be at 395 in 2017 remaining under capacity through 2026.
Rancho Sienna Elementary, with a capacity of 900, would start its inaugural year at 517, exceeding capacity by a projected 45 students in 2021.
With fifth and sixth graders at the Intermediate campus, which is designed for 900, capacity would be exceeded in 2022. In the fall, the school should see 599 students.
Administrators say the school district will continue to accept transfer students, but will make their school assignments based on how best to keep the populations equitable.
“They may not be attending the school closest to where they live,” Pirtle said. “And they can either accept the assignment or stay where they are.”
2020 Bond Election
With projected growth in the recommended attendance zones, administrators say a bond election will be needed in 2020 in order to build facilities that can be occupied by 2022.
Hart said in three years voters will likely consider building a fourth elementary school, renovating the Intermediate campus into a fifth elementary school, building a middle school for grades six through eight, and adding classroom wings onto Liberty Hill High School. At that time, boundary lines will likely be changed again considering the new growth.
If voters approve that plan, Liberty Hill will return to the middle school structure combining grades six through eight on two campuses. Hart estimated the middle school population will be about 1,000 in 2022. Currently, grades seven and eight attend Liberty Hill Junior High.
While it’s too early to estimate the cost of those new facilities, Hart said the decision to keep fifth grade at the Intermediate school now delays the inevitable.
“This way, the values will increase and give us more tax base,” he said.
Spreading the costs to an increased number of residential and commercial property taxpayers is preferable.
While the school district considers its transfer student policy annually, Hart said he expects that the district will have to change the way it accepts transfers prior to 2020.
“The time is coming faster than I thought when this doesn’t help us,” he said.
LHISD receives state aid based on its average daily attendance, so more students translates to increased state funding. However, once the school district reaches a certain level of total property tax value, the current school finance system requires “wealthy” school districts to pay a portion of local revenue back to the state. As LHISD gets closer to that level, the transfer policy will need to be reconsidered, Hart said.
The question may then become whether the district grandfathers existing transfers, permits them at certain grade levels or eliminates the option altogether.
With the primary goal being to create equitable educational opportunities at all three elementary campuses, administrators said it was essential to draw the boundaries in a way that fairly distributed students. Along with the demographic research by neighborhood, the demographers considered PEIMS (Public Education Information Management System) data from the school district including student demographic and academic performance, personnel, financial, and organizational information.
Pirtle said the proposed attendance zones are the closest the district can get to equity.
Under the new plan, 28 percent of the Rancho Sienna students will be economically disadvantaged, Burden will be 34 percent and Liberty Hill Elementary will be 29 percent.
The ethnic breakdown by campus will be as follows:
Rancho Sienna, 20.8 percent; Burden, 23.8 percent, LH Elementary, 17.1 percent
– African American:
Rancho Sienna, 1.2 percent; Burden, 2.2 percent, LH Elementary, 3.4 percent
Rancho Sienna, 72.8 percent; Burden, 71.2 percent; LH Elementary, 77.2 percent
Rancho Sienna, 2.5 percent; Burden, 2.1 percent; LH Elementary, 1.5 percent.
Rancho Sienna, 2.7 percent; Burden, .7 percent; LH Elementary, .8 percent.
“The ethnic breakdown is not perfect, but it isn’t that far off,” Pirtle said.
Staff and student assignments
Once the elementary boundary zone plan is approved by Trustees next week, administrators will finalize teaching and other staff assignments for fall 2017.
Hart said elementary teachers and other staff members will be notified March 6 — the week before Spring Break — where they will be working.
Elementary teachers have completed a survey where they selected their first through third choices of school assignment. Principals are reviewing those and talking to staff now, being careful to balance teaching experience levels and campus leadership interests.
Parents of elementary students will receive a letter from the school district informing them of their child’s school assignment later this spring.