Hart: Liberty Hill is the place to be
By SHELLY WILKISON
To be at the helm of a fast-growing school district in Texas is a pretty good place to be.
For Dr. Rob Hart, now in his eighth year as Liberty Hill’s school superintendent, the story of the district’s growth and success is one he tells proudly, as often as he can, and to as many people who will listen.
Two weeks ago, he was the keynote speaker at a monthly luncheon of the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce. He spent the first part of his presentation reading from what seemed to be a never-ending list of all of the student achievements of the past school year. At every campus, the list of awards in both academics and athletics appeared to impress the business leaders of Liberty Hill and neighboring cities.
“We hear it all the time, that Liberty Hill is the place to be,” he said. “And it must be true because they’re all coming here.”
Every year as the start of school nears, Hart anticipates questions about school district growth and plans for the future.
Rarely is he at a loss for an answer because Hart spends countless hours poring over demographic studies and talking with all kinds of people about how growth patterns will impact the school district’s ability to meet the needs of a changing student population.
He says he doesn’t want to be caught off guard or unprepared for the growth.
“We’ve known for a long time that it was coming (the growth in population), but now it’s here,” he said.
Barring a major job market crash in Austin, Hart said the growth patterns will remain in place for some time. With increased access to mass transportation at Capital Metro’s Leander Station, more families are able to move out of the city and are looking at Liberty Hill.
“It’s the place to be. Maybe that should be our motto. Good things are happening here,” he said.
While new student registration got officially under way on August 3, the lobby of the administration building has been busy most of the summer with families completing paperwork to enroll children in school. And the phone inquiries are even more common.
For a school district that just five years ago passed an $86 million bond package to build a new high school and expand other campuses, it would seem that Liberty Hill schools are still busting at the seams.
“By next year we will need a new elementary school,” Hart said, adding that a site at Rancho Sienna has already been selected. A sign at the back of the subdivision marks the location, and Hart anticipates presenting a bond package to voters in May 2016 with a fall 2017 opening date.
Although builders continue putting rooftops on the ground, the commercial growth isn’t following as fast as school district officials would like. Property tax revenue generated by commercial development is a positive for the district. Unlike residential property that sends children to school, a business pays takes without drawing on the system.
Hart said he occasionally fields calls and meets with businesses considering Liberty Hill as a possible location.
He says summertime is always a time of change for schools as teachers and staff relocate for various reasons. But when school starts August 25, LHISD will welcome as many as 65 new employees.
While growth in enrollment has accounted for the creation of a number of new teaching positions across the district, the majority of new employees are filling vacated positions.
Hart said Liberty Hill continues to be competitive when it comes to salary and benefits compared to Round Rock and Leander. Although Liberty Hill pays less, the numbers are close and the working conditions are better. Two years ago, LHISD provided employees with a significant pay increase.
“I think society is just more mobile than it used to be,” he said as an explanation of the movement.
For the first time in his eight years in LHISD, there is a significant change in administrative staff. Three new assistant principals are in place, in addition to a new assistant superintendent. Although two of those — Chad Pirtle and Annette Coe — are in new assignments, they are not new to the district.
The administration recommended this summer that the school board continue to allow students to transfer into the district without paying tuition. Every summer the decision is affirmed after administrators compare the financial impact of accepting transfer students tuition-free as opposed to charging a minimal fee set by the state.
According to school finance laws, when a school district reaches a certain revenue threshold, the state may recapture some the funds it obtains from property taxes. While Liberty Hill is still below that figure, Hart said increasing property values in the district could mean a change in the policy in the next five years.
The district receives funding for the transfer students through the state’s system of average daily attendance. As enrollment increases, so does the ADA-generated income.
During the past school year, some 400 of the district’s 3,300 students were transfers, Hart said, adding that many were children of LHISD employees.
In order to keep challenging students in the classroom using the latest technology, the district created a position this summer for an Instructional Technology Director and later hired Jay Olivier to fill the position.
“He will help to implement technology in classrooms,” Hart said.
He said administrators are always concerned about student safety and the security of the campuses.
Since the high school is in the jurisdiction of Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, he said administrators will reach out to county law enforcement to help improve campus security.
“We will start some conversations with them about increased patrols and what they can do for us,” Hart said.