With Rancho Sienna campus, LHISD moves to community schools

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The view of the main entry at the proposed Rancho Sienna Elementary School. In May, votes will consider a $35 million bond package, which includes $29 million for the new campus at Rancho Sienna. The school will house 800 students in grades Pre-K through five. (Courtesy Graphic)

The view of the main entry at the proposed Rancho Sienna Elementary School. In May, votes will consider a $35 million bond package, which includes $29 million for the new campus at Rancho Sienna. The school will house 800 students in grades Pre-K through five. (Courtesy Graphic)

By SHELLY WILKISON

If voters approve bonds in May to build a new elementary school at Rancho Sienna, it will mark the end of Liberty Hill’s system of single attendance schools and pave the way for a future of community-based schools.

Currently, each campus is home to certain grade levels. But with the addition of a third elementary campus, Liberty Hill Elementary, Bill Burden Elementary and the new Rancho Sienna Elementary will each house students in grades pre-kindergarten through five. And in such a scenario, Superintendent Rob Hart says the current Intermediate campus will be home to only sixth graders.

A semester before the Rancho Sienna Elementary opens to students in fall 2017, district officials will engage the firm that provides quarterly demographic studies to draw the boundary lines for each school. The district will also use software called Transfinder to help determine the attendance lines.

“We expect to get a lot of questions about this now, but it’s really too early to know,” Hart said. “So many new families will move in between now and then.”

For now, Hart and other administrators are busy meeting with architects and contractors, while a citizens facility advisory committee may be forming a political action committee to promote the bond package to voters.

Liberty Hill ISD voters go to the polls May 7 to consider a $35 million bond package that was approved by school trustees on Monday. The new elementary school will cost an estimated $29 million, and the remaining $6 million will be spent on improvements to the district’s agriculture barn and boosting security at Liberty Hill Elementary School.

Hart told The Independent Tuesday that while trustees saw a design for the new school, detailed plans of the other projects will not be complete until after the election.

But at minimum, district officials are planning to build a new arena at the agriculture barn on the junior high campus, and renovate the existing arena to add more pens.

At Liberty Hill Elementary, the first priority will be to build a controlled vestibule for campus security purposes. Network cabling will also be a possibility.

He said it is too early to tell what the actual costs will be to staff the new school.

“We don’t know exactly how much that will cost,” he said. But the district will create new positions for administrative and support staff, as well as special teachers like music and art.

“All the things auxiliary to the teaching will be new. The teachers themselves will be divided between the three campuses,” he said.

Because Liberty Hill Elementary is not as large, Hart said it won’t be as simple as dividing all grade levels three ways.

But as most grade levels are now approaching the 300 mark, it isn’t practical or efficient anymore to have single attendance schools.

“This will change the concept of single attendance schools,” he said.

While he wouldn’t speculate on where the attendance zones would be drawn, he did say elementary age students living in the Rancho Sienna subdivision will likely attend that school.

“How far it (the attendance line) comes this way, we don’t know that yet,” he said.

If approved by voters, the new campus will be built for 800 students, but it could handle 1,000 on a short-term basis while another elementary school is being built.

Will the new school open its doors to 800 students?

Hart said he couldn’t be sure.

“It’s hard to say. But, we’re adding over 300 homes a year (in the school district). We have an 8.2 percent growth rate right now,” he said. “We could put 800 there depending on where we place the (attendance) line.”

With both existing elementary schools experiencing crowding issues now, a third campus with 800 students would ease the crowding of the others in a noticeable way.

Hart went a step further in discussing how the district would handle future growth at the upper grade levels.

“Just taking half the load off the Intermediate in one fail swoop” will be a relief at that campus, he said. He said the decision to keep only sixth grade there is just a space issue.

While at first, the campus that currently houses fifth and sixth graders will have a lot of vacant space, Hart doesn’t expect the space to be unoccupied for long.

“Eventually, we will fill the Intermediate and that’s when we will start on another junior high or middle school, whatever the needs are at the time,” he said.

Hart said dividing fifth and sixth grades is beneficial from an alignment issue. Because most school districts have middle schools rather than junior high schools, sixth graders are housed with seventh and eighth grades. That used to be the case in Liberty Hill as well.

In UIL academic contests, for example, sixth graders compete with junior high students, while fifth graders at the Intermediate campus compete with elementary students.

“It creates an identity issue,” Hart said. “And this (sixth grade campus) gives us enough time to address the elementary needs.”

Hart said adding a new school won’t require an increase in the LHISD ad valorem tax rate.

“But if (property) values go up, people will pay more taxes,” he said.

However, Hart said with more than 300 homes added to the tax rolls every year, the tax burden is spread out over more property owners.

“We backed that up, looked at our growth rate and our values and looked at how much we could safely afford without a tax increase,” he said. “We know we can do that much ($35 million) without a tax increase.”

Hart, who by law can only talk about “the facts” of the bond proposal, said he is speaking to various homeowner associations, the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce, and others who would like more information between now and Election Day.

So far, he hasn’t heard of any organized opposition to the plan.

“Mostly it’s about ‘what can we do to help?’ A lot of people are excited about it,” he said. “Really, this (bond election) shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We’ve been out front saying this all along. We just got hit hard this year because growth picked up.”

In the coming days, Hart said residents can find a link on the school district website — www.libertyhill.txed.net — to pages all about the bond project, including election information and voting locations.

He said although the school district is not legally able to advocate for the bond proposal, it will be preparing a quick facts flyer with voting information.

May’s election will be Hart’s second bond package since becoming Liberty Hill’s Superintendent nine years ago. In 2010, voters approved an $86 million bond package that included a new high school and athletic complex, as well as improvements and expansions at existing campuses. The project took three years to complete.

For more information on the 2016 LHISD bond proposal, visit the website.

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