Demographics fuel growth plan for LHISD

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Managing Editor

Each time Liberty Hill ISD enrolls a new student it fills one more seat in a classroom on one of its seven current campuses.

That addition represents growth, and a look back over the last decade shows that growth is occurring at an unprecedented rate.

But efficiently preparing for that growth each year takes much more than counting the students in classrooms, it requires accurate, reliable data that addresses the students not yet in a desk.

Further complicating that task in LHISD is that the number of new desks needed in the next five years is expected to be double what it is now, and double that five more years down the line.

Schools cost money and construction takes time, so how exactly does a district determine what to ask the community to support?

Demographics.

The district entrusts the gathering and synthesizing of that data to Population and Survey Analysts (PASA), a company based in Houston that specializes in the task at hand, and works with dozens of other districts across the state, including Leander ISD.

The $497.1 million bond package on the May ballot was built on the PASA projections presented to the school board, and even for seasoned professionals, the numbers lead to a double take.

Justin Silhavy, with PASA, said Liberty Hill is one of many communities they work with where double and triple checking the projections is just a natural reaction.

“We definitely do that with Liberty Hill,” he said. “You sit back and you think, ‘okay, do we need to change something, and why’. We get it loaded up, sit back and plenty of times where we take an approach that we ask ourselves where we can tone it down. We go the other way sometimes, too, but we mostly try to be more conservative. It is a little shocking.”

Demographers have projected that the Fall 2021 enrollment for the district will reach 6,566 and that number is expected to double by 2025 to 12,215. Beyond the five years the current bond is intended to address, enrollment is projected to nearly double again by 2030 to over 22,000.

“At the end of the day the demographics are staggering,” said LHISD Superintendent Steve Snell. “The amount of growth coming our way is staggering. This bond is going to be the foundation to start the preparation for all this growth. When you look at our school demographics, just in one year we’re up 13.5 percent this year. Out of the 5,700-plus kids we have in the district today, almost 1,400 are brand new to our district.”

The data presented to the LHISD Board of Trustees early this year showed not only that the past growth rate had risen from 3.4 percent in 2008 to 13.5 percent in 2020, but that number would grow to more than 18 percent over the next two years and slowly decline to 10.8 percent by 2030, resulting in a student population of more than 22,000 by that year. A majority of this growth is expected to be in the elementary grades.

Looking forward
Demographics are often gathered on the current situation, but for a growing school district attempting to plan for future needs, knowing what’s coming in the next decade is critical information.

Silhavy said one thing that sets PASA apart is what data they focus on.

“We as a firm don’t really rely on past rates of change or historical change,” he said. “We do a little bit, but our whole mantra – a big part of our methodology – is we look forward from today. If we were looking at historical data for Liberty Hill ISD we would be under projecting because we know there is more coming and it is coming faster than it ever was before.”

Previously, projections used by LHISD were based primarily on what had been platted in subdivisions, but it is impractical to rely on a certain rate of growth, especially in the situation LHISD is in today.

“If you keep extrapolating from the past you’re going to over project because if you keep saying it will grow at the same rate you will be dead wrong,” Silhavy said.

That means much more information is needed beyond what can be gathered through available public documents.

Gathering data
It might seem counterintuitive to work on gathering accurate numbers by having conversations, but that’s where PASA focuses much of its data-gathering effort.

“One thing that sets us apart is we don’t just know what’s happening today, we actually interview the cities,” Silhavy said. “What we don’t know about is maybe a development agreement that the city has worked out with a landowner or an annexation agreement. You have to ask about that, you can’t just understand that from a planning and zoning agenda, so we make a point to interview all the local officials.”

In LHISD that means talking to Liberty Hill, Leander and Georgetown, as well as going to Williamson County regarding the unincorporated portions of the school district.

Putting eyes and ears on the ground is the answer to that challenge for PASA.

“We have an entire employee dedicated to traveling around and he collects data on new housing,” Silhavy said. “He gets up to date construction information. He knows how many homes are under construction at a given point in time.”

That means the data gathered beyond housing starts and plats is also information PASA sees as more reliable.

“We’re the primary source for most of our information,” Silhavy said. “There’s too much happening too fast to rely on national vendors and that will get you in trouble.”

He mentioned Santa Rita Ranch as a prime example of how they gather information.

“The biggest community in metro Austin is Santa Rita, and so we don’t just talk to the city,” he said. “I make a point to talk to (Santa Rita developer Ed Horne) every year. He can give me some data that maybe he hasn’t provided the city.”

A look at projected housing starts shows that Santa Rita is expected to lead the way with 3,305 new starts between now and 2030, followed by nine other developments with well over 8,000 starts combined in that time.

Conversations can be about where houses will be going next as well as what is happening with infrastructure, looking at plans for water and wastewater lines or new roads, citing the example of the new water line headed west in Liberty Hill to service the new Butler Farms subdivision.

“What other developers will be able to do is tie into that, so we have to get an understanding of where these lines are going and how much capacity there is,” Silhavy said. “We know to look at the clues. We need to know what’s about to happen, not what already is and what statistics are showing us.”

Beyond trends in the district as a whole is the need to drill down to look at much smaller areas, which ends up being critical in planning where to plan new schools and when to begin searching for land to purchase.

“We need to know the details, like where the homes are going to be built,” Silhavy said. “That matters for attendance boundaries. A developer may be building in two different attendance boundaries, so we need to know where they will pick the pace up or why they think the pace will slow down. What the next moves are.”

The district is divided into planning units to get even more specific data.

“We do that specifically to plan for new locations for new schools,” he said. “We can break the district up into these areas and then that allows us to have these small units of geography to work with. We call them catchment areas and it helps us pinpoint how many students in each grade level are going to be living in these planning areas. All of our data is all fed into these planning areas and it is constantly changing. As the district opens up new campuses that changes the plan, so we have to update this annually.”

Other critical date to be collected revolves around economic growth, job growth, and population age, though this data is far less specific to an area.

“That’s tough to really put it into small geographies,” Silhavy said. “It’s not like we know where everyone lives that takes a job, but we have to look at what’s happening in the entire region, and what we know about the Austin region right now is it is nearly fully recovered from the COVID losses.”

Once the data is in hand, the next hurdle is putting it all together in a useful manner that will result in reliable projections.

“It is all important and I always look at it as layers,” Silhavy said. “Our maps are a good analogy. We have data that’s student information. All of that is layered on new housing information, which is layered upon our current school data and attendance zones. Then we will have other variables that add other layers and then the overall economic aspect of it is important too.”

Reliability
The district began working with PASA in late 2019, just before the impact of COVID-19 began to show four months later.

According to Silhavy, LHISD had never projected or grown by more than 400 before 2019, and that years was 488. The first projection from PASA was considerably higher.

“I was very hesitant,” he said. “I was nervous to project over 600, which is what we did, and it turns out they grew by 660. It kind of validated our work there. We’ve worked with districts that have gone through the very same thing.”

The company has a history of projections made for other districts, one of those being Leander ISD, where projections date back nearly 20 years. Projections show in the first few years, the numbers later show that projections to be quite accurate.

The numbers are usually within a half percentage in the first two years, then deviate more from there into future years.

“We have a pretty high confidence level over the first five years of our projection period,” Silhavy said. “Most of that growth is happening in neighborhoods that are already on the ground, maybe even with people who have moved in that just might not have a kid yet.”

Ten-year projections are the biggest challenge, but are updated annually as those years draw closer, bringing the real picture into greater focus.

“The truth is the farther you go out the less accurate you’re going to be,” Silhavy said. “No one can know 10 years from now what exactly that number is going to look like, or where. It is constantly evolving, so we kind of say the first five years is more solid. When you’re dealing with kindergarten students, those children you’re projecting for at six years aren’t even born yet.”

Despite the large numbers area residents see in future projections, Silhavy said PASA leans toward conservative estimates.

“I am sure there are people in this community who think we’re crazy,” he said. “That slowly goes away as time goes on and the growth is there to stay. We’ve been conservative, though, and we’d rather the district under build rather than over build because if you over build there are obvious repercussions to that.”

The unknowns
Even with mountains of data there are still plenty of unknowns and the unexpected when making projections.

In 2020 it was COVID-19, but Silhavy said in the last decade PASA has dealt with one surprise after another.

“We’ve become experts on that,” Silhavy said, laughing as he reflected on the last five years. “In the Houston metro area we dealt with three years in a row with flooding in different parts of the city, then (Hurricane) Harvey was the cherry on top in 2017. We’ve dealt with tornadoes before in Central and North Texas.”

The recession in 2008 was a perfect example of how things can really change on a dime, especially in the housing industry.

“What happened in 2008 was an immediate halt to that growth, and then you also a year or two later started seeing fewer babies born,” he said. “Then you had a two-pronged problem with no new homes built, no one moving and fewer babies a few years later, and that affected a lot of districts for a while.”

The boom today is reflective of the numbers demographers saw prior to 2008.

Silhavy said COVID, though, has been unlike any of the other unexpected turns, and the lesson from that has been different.

“We were scratching our heads back in March and April (2020) and we didn’t quite know how this was going to turn out,” he said. “In the Spring we were starting to think about slowing the pace of some of the development because for nearly two months everything shut down. When you see sales are down you can’t project high, the data is not there to support it, but we were wrong. Luckily, we were able to change our train of thought rather quickly once we started getting more sales data, and our guy on the ground was noticing in June and July that things were starting to turn around real fast, and sure enough by August it was a complete 180.”

They faced the issues of students not enrolling, parents choosing online school as well as the traditional worries over employment impacts, moves and the economy.

“From April to about January of this year we were constantly sitting down and kind of brainstorming what’s going on,” Silhavy said. “We didn’t really start getting good data until about September or October of last year. We’ve had to make some assumptions and that’s been the hard part.”

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