Voting begins Monday on $98.6 million LHISD bond
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
The details have been spelled out, presentations made, and numbers tested and now all that remains is to cast the ballots and count the votes on Liberty Hill ISD’s $98.6 million bond proposal.
The 2018 bond package is to build a new elementary school, a new middle school, convert the Intermediate School into an elementary campus, and add classroom space onto Liberty Hill High School.
The estimated price of the new elementary school at Santa Rita, which will house 800 students, is $32.2 million.
The estimated costs of the other projects in the bond proposal are $50.5 million for the middle school with a 900 capacity; $1.2 million to renovate the Intermediate campus to an elementary school; and $14.7 million to add classroom space onto LHHS.
The campaigning for or against the bond has been quiet, and only a limited number of questions have been raised about the proposal, but one parent, Aleta Brochue has been more vocal as of late.
She said she is not representing an organized opposition to the bond, and that she is not against new schools being built, but she has concerns.
“I’m a concerned parent, but there are a lot of parents and people who live here who are concerned,” she said. “I am not the only one and there are a lot of people who are going to vote no.”
Her chief concern is why the school district has not articulated a plan for if the bond proposal doesn’t pass.
“What is their plan for if this doesn’t pass?” she said. “Dr. Hart’s answer of ‘we don’t have one’ is an extremely poor business position to be in. In business you always have a back up plan, so if they are running this as a business, which they should be, it scares me that we have no back up plan if people vote no on it.”
Superintendent Rob Hart reemphasized that there were no other good options for dealing with the growth that continues in the district.
“We’ve never had a backup plan because we’ve never run anything where we didn’t need it,” Hart said. “The only backup plan we have is putting more kids in classrooms, writing waivers to exceed the 22-to-1 rule and using portables. Not building schools is not an option, and that’s what we’re doing is building schools.”
Portable buildings cost the district about $100,000 each to purchase and set up, and aside from not being seen as a long-term solution, they pose other problems.
“Building portables is really not an option because these subdivisions aren’t going to allow that in there,” Hart said. “The homeowners Associations are very tight with that.”
The other downside to using portables is where the money to purchase and maintain them comes from.
“Portables and all of that comes out of Maintenance and Operations (M&O),” Hart said. “It immediately comes out of operations, which means a reduction in staff.”
Why so costly?
The debt per student projected for Liberty Hill ISD will be $92,643 according to Texas Comptroller calculations, the highest among high-growth schools, and Brochue says Liberty Hill should be better.
“Of the districts that are considered high growth, we are the highest student per debt ratio out of all of them,” she said. “My concern is if this bond passes, we will be higher than any other high-growth school district by $10,000 per kid. Why is that and why are we not doing it better?”
Three of the school districts being compared to Liberty Hill passed bonds last year and Liberty Hill is the only one with a bond on the ballot in November. Hart said the other six could be planning a bond election next year or the year after, which would make their debt per student ratio climb as Liberty Hill’s is then decreasing.
“That is a snapshot of a particular moment in time,” Hart said.
Across Texas, there are 42 school districts with November bond elections, ranging from $992 million in Fort Bend ISD to $1.5 million in Sonora. Other bond elections in Central Texas include Round Rock ISD ($508 million), Pflugerville ISD ($332 million), Georgetown ISD ($166 million) and Marble Falls ISD ($55 million).
How fast the student population grows is also a key factor. In the snapshot from the Comptroller’s Office, only Medina Valley added more students (615) than Liberty Hill’s 541. Enrollment changes in Liberty Hill ISD over the last six years show growth from 2,766 in 2012 to 4,377 students to open this school year.
“Since (2016), we’ve added 1,000 more students, and we’ve refinanced some bonds and paid down $1 million in debt,” Hart said. “We’re all fast-growth school districts, and this is a by-product of that. You accumulate debt.”
Brochue believes school construction in Liberty Hill is more costly than in other districts.
“Why are our buildings costing us more? How are they doing it better than we are and why are we not modeling after those school districts that are doing it well?”
Hart said costs vary only slightly and it is not true that it is costing Liberty Hill more.
“Actually it costs us less than a lot of others,” Hart said of construction. “Rancho Sienna is a 117,000- square-foot geothermal building and it was $205 per square foot. That’s competitive if not better than others. Our buildings are no different than anybody else’s.”
Looking at construction costs of 11 elementary schools opened by Central Texas school districts between 2014 and 2018 showed the cost per square foot to range from $193 in Jarrell to $256 in Austin, with Liberty Hill’s Rancho Sienna coming in fifth ranked by cost at $206 per square foot.
“Our buildings cost more today than they did eight years ago, but still are the same as everybody else,” Hart said. “We’re not the only ones paying more today for schools.”
The tax rate for Liberty Hill ISD is at $1.54, the maximum rate allowed by law. Hart has made a point of letting voters know that the bond, if passed, will not make the tax rate higher, but he doesn’t deny that due to rising property values, the taxes will increase.
Brochue said continuing to spend will prevent the rate from ever decreasing.
“Our taxes will go up whether they like to say it or not. It may not be their fault, it might be capped at $1.54, but if we keep spending like this, our taxes will never go down.”
While the bond would lengthen the time school district taxes remain at the maximum $1.54 rate, the idea that not approving this bond might quickly lower the rate is false, Hart said.
“(When the debt rate might decrease) would depend on property value increases,” Hart said. “It would still be several years down the road and then by that point it would only be a penny or two, something like that.”
A two-cent reduction in the tax rate would equate to a savings of $60 annually on a home valued at $300,000.
Setting and adjusting the debt service rate is not something the school district can do arbitrarily, as raising and lowering the rate is dependent on strict guidelines from the state.
“What you have to do every year is when you set that tax rate, you have to pass the 50-cent test,” Hart said. “It is truth in taxation, you have to plug in your values and plug in what your tax rate is and what you’re generating out of that. Then that goes to the Secretary of State’s office and they come back and say you can’t collect at that high a rate because you don’t need that much to pay your debt.”
Hart said the district regularly refinances old bonds to create savings on interest rates, then that savings is applied to principle to retire debt earlier.