Committee finds consensus in bond proposal

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

A group of 65 community members gathered for the first time in October to determine how Liberty Hill ISD could address its future facility and growth needs.

At that meeting, the new Long Range Planning Committee learned first about the growth that has occurred in the district in recent years and the growth expected over the next decade — setting the group on a course that resulted in a $491 million bond proposal presented to the Board of Trustees on Jan. 25.

Committee member Kenneth Huff, a sixth-grade teacher at Liberty Hill Intermediate School, has been in education a long time, but had not been involved previously in issues like the ones facing the committee.

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” he said. “This is my twenty-third year in education, and in those 23 years I’ve only had the opportunity to work in a brand new building one time. I was not part of the similar process for that new building.”

The task proved to be large, with many questions and a lot of data, but Committee member Aurora Trahan, the mother of a first grader at Santa Rita Elementary, said it was presented and covered in a way that it wasn’t too overwhelming.

“I would say they did a really good job from the outset setting the tone to let us know this was a big job,” she said. “It was a lot to consider and was a big decision. What I appreciated about the committee is it really was a nice cross section of the people in Liberty Hill that were new, that were here a long time, business owners, folks that had gone through the school system themselves, to say we are all coming at it with our own perceptions and reactions to it.”

There was one aspect of the process that did seem overwhelming for some, though.

“It is overwhelming in that if the district doesn’t do something to try and stay ahead of the data they are showing, we’re left with what do we do if we can’t stay in front of this growth?” Huff said.

Beyond projected enrollment numbers, the committee worked through a long list of other considerations to try and leave no stone unturned when looking at the expense, efficiency and culture of the district.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was the discussion of whether to stick with one high school or move forward with building a second one.

“We’re growing, this is a town that has a lot of pride, we’re all Panthers, but then we got to thinking about two high schools and the implications that can bring and it was a little bit more challenging,” Trahan said.

In the end, for the committee, opportunity won out over that one-campus unity.

“Where we landed was really about students being able to participate in things, to have opportunities to be on the sports teams, do things like ROTC, robotics and those sorts of things,” Trahan said. “When you start to think about the numbers in the student populations we are seeing in the demographic projections it’s tough to think about a school that large and have opportunities for kids to participate the way they can today.”

With older campuses that have less capacity than newer ones, another issue was trying to establish equity across all campuses.

“We wanted to make this a district where there is equity across the district,” Trahan said. “We want folks to feel like whatever school they’re at is representative of the great pride in education in the school system that we know is Liberty Hill. That’s why you see in the proposal things like adding to and updating some of the older campuses.”

The ideal size of a LHISD campus, on the elementary, middle and high school levels, was also thoroughly vetted by the committee.

“As part of our discussion in small groups and the whole group when we gathered, there was discussion on how big do we want these schools if we build them?” Huff said. “What is that magic number or the tipping point of how many is too many students? Or how much is too much building? You have to find the middle ground of where is it cost effective as far as how big we build.”

That evaluation went beyond what committee members or even district staff envisioned as the ideal number.

“We looked at other districts around us,” Huff said. “How big is a typical elementary school in Leander? How big is an elementary school in Bertram? We want to compare apples to apples. Do they feel like their size is too big and on the other side of that did they build it too small and now they have to come up with another building.”

Nailing down a dollar amount and the structure of the bond proposal came down to a handful of factors for the committee.

“One issue was the speed in which the growth is happening, and then some of the logistics like if we’re going to need schools and facilities it’s important to secure land before there’s no space to build another school,” Trahan said. “That played a big part on how we ultimately landed on the larger number and the time frame. Looking at the big picture and securing that land and getting started on construction and at least planning for some of the other future campuses was critical. We don’t want to end up with our kids in overcrowded schools as we look to catch up or call another bond in a couple of years.”

In the end, as the plan came into focus, Huff was pleased with how the large group, with varying perspectives came together.

“I was able to voice my opinion coming from a classroom, as well as hear opinions coming from parents or other community members,” Huff said. “All of those conversations happened, but at the end of the day we all kind of came to agreement. I was very surprised at how much consensus we had in the group. There wasn’t a split.”

Both Huff and Trahan hope that voters dig into the information and details the same way the committee did before coming to a conclusion.

“The more people know the better their decision will be,” Huff said. “It’s like voting for the president. You can’t just shoot from the hip and say one guy looks good. Dig into the information, find something you think is a selling point or huge detractor and let somebody know. If you shoot from the hip and don’t do the research you’re doing a disservice to the community. The expansion is going to happen whether the district is ready for it or not. If you’re not going to support it, give us a reason why so we can adjust it and move forward as a community. This was not something thrown together. We put some time in and I’m proud of the work we did and I can support it.”

Trahan agreed, emphasizing the effort she has seen toward gathering and sharing information through the process.

“There is a true desire for community input and there is a true lens toward transparency,” she said. “I’d encourage folks to become educated on the topic. It was a large committee, so network with folks that you know to talk through the information or read it yourself on the website and ask questions.”

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