LHISD Board approves elementary boundaries, elects new officers



Despite the Liberty Hill ISD Board of Trustees election being postponed to November, the Board moved forward with electing new officers May 18, unanimously supporting Clint Stephenson as the new Board President.

Stephenson previously served as Vice President and is replacing Clay Cole, who will be leaving the board in November after choosing not to file for reelection.

Cole served on the board more than a dozen years and as president for eight. His term – which would have ended this month – has been extended to November with the postponement of the election.

“Clay Cole has been amazing as a Board member and Board President,” said LHISD Superintendent Steve Snell. “He’s been the model of consistency and class in my opinion. What he’s told me is now that his kids are graduated it is time for him to pass the torch.”

Stephenson will be running for reelection and is being challenged by Terry Smith.

Board member Kathy Major was elected Vice President and Board member Megan Parsons was elected Secretary.

“This is one of the best boards I’ve ever worked with,” Snell said. “They’re united in their mission and support of the school district, the teachers and the kids. I think Clint Stephenson will just carry that mission forward and I’m looking forward to working with him and the new slate of officers.”

Attendance zones set
After crunching the numbers, digesting the projections and making a number of presentations to the community, the Board of Trustees approved new elementary school attendance zones for the district with the opening of Santa Rita Elementary on schedule for August.

“I’d like to thank the community for the input they provided,” Snell said of the process. “We put it out there on social media and e-mail and every chance we got we talked about it. The people who gave us feedback we appreciate it.”

The district wants to balance out the student population on each campus as much as possible, but with one eye on where future growth is coming.

“We definitely don’t want to overcrowd our buildings and we want to stay ahead of the curve,” Snell said. “Looking at the schools we have and looking at future campuses we want to make sure we have space for our kids. Secondly, we want to limit the amount of movement a single family might have.”

With that one eye on future growth patterns, the plan is to open Santa Rita Elementary with about 400 students in the fall.

“Looking at the high-density areas, if you take just the neighborhoods of Santa Rita South, Santa Rita North, MorningStar and Cross Creek Ranch, if we just used those neighborhoods to open Santa Rita Elementary, that would start us off – kindergarten through fourth grade – at just under 400 students,” Snell said.

The student population will grow quickly, and opening with that smaller number has advantages.

“Looking at the growth, that helps us with two things,” Snell said. “It helps us financially on our maintenance and operations budget and it also helps us manage growth going forward in reducing the amount of movement families in those neighborhoods would have to make.”

The following year the plan is to add fifth grade to the elementary campuses as Liberty Hill Intermediate transitions to an elementary school, and that will impact student numbers on all campuses.

“Adding fifth grade the next year Santa Rita would be projected to have 600 students, and moving forward to the 2022 school year, with the fast growth and houses being built, we would expect to have 750 students,” Snell said. “By the end of 2023, Santa Rita Elementary, with just those neighborhoods, would have close to 900 students.”

Under this plan, there will be no moving of students from Santa Rita until it gets to a point where the district has to build another school within that particular attendance boundary.

“We’re using growth projections and space in our schools to limit the amount of movement a family might have,” Snell said.

When Liberty Hill Intermediate is reopened as a fifth elementary school for the 2021-2022 school year, it will ease student growth district-wide.

“That will help alleviate crowding and growth in Liberty Hill Elementary, Bill Burden, and the northern part of Rancho Sienna might draw toward that school as well,” Snell said.

The rate of growth in Liberty Hill ISD remains high, with the 10-year projection have the district’s student population at 14,000 on the low end and 22,000 on the high end.

“By 2024, we are projected to double in growth,” Snell said. “The slow model has us at 8,500 kids and the fast-growth model has us at 10,000 students. If you fast-forward another five years they have us doubling again. That is incredible to think about.”

Playground awards
The Board brought a little bit of shiny new fun to each Liberty Hill elementary campus when it voted to approve new playground equipment across the district.

The total for bringing all campuses to the same level, with two playgrounds per campus, is $379,320.

“When you look at Santa Rita Elementary, they have brand new playground equipment, and now that we’re adding fifth grade we’ve got it where there is a primary playground for pre-K through first grade and then you’ve got an upper-elementary playground,” Snell said of the plans for the new campus.

But playground concerns have been brought up at other campuses as well, with Rancho Sienna and Bill Burden each have only one playground that doesn’t fit the need for all age groups and Liberty Hill Elementary is battling age with its two playgrounds.

“Liberty Hill Elementary’s playgrounds are actually both outdated,” Snell said. “They have two but they both are past their lifespan in our opinion.”

The opportunity arose to get a discount for outfitting all campuses the same, and with an estimated $2 million in savings projected so far on the 2018 bond package, administrators thought this was a good time to bring the opportunity to the Board.

“One of the benefits of hiring a Casey Sledge for us is he is able to realize a lot of cost savings for us, so I felt it was a time to bring to the board that we’ve saved money on projects and we have a chance to spend money that will touch every elementary student in the district and provide some equity, at least in playgrounds.”

The issue has been one Snell said many parents bring up in discussions about their concerns at the district’s elementary schools.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the inequity of those playgrounds so we thought now was a good time to create that equity across the district,” Snell said. “As we move next year to renovate the Intermediate to convert to an elementary we will make sure their playgrounds are adequate as well.”

The equipment is being purchased from Hunter Knepshield, a Texas-based company in Plano.

Geothermal issue
Liberty Hill high School – as well as the district’s newer campuses – uses a geothermal HVAC system for energy efficiency.

In a geothermal HVAC system, an electrically powered heat pump cycles fluid, usually water or refrigerant, through long loops of underground pipes. This process is how heat is transferred from ambient air in the building to the ground and vice versa.

While it is a long-term cost saving measure that increases energy efficiency for the campuses, Liberty Hill ISD has run into an issue with the system at the high school because the underground piping was placed too close to the current building to accommodate for expansion.

“Basically when the building was designed they put geothermal fields around most of the school right up against the school building,” Snell said. “Our opinion was when this high school was built there were at least drawings and the notion it was going to expand and we knew where expansion was going to be based on the land and layout of the school.”

Now that it is time to add on, there will be additional cost to moving and reconfiguring those systems.

“Now that we’re expanding the high school, the fact that those geothermal wells were put there it would be a cost to the school district to move and reconfigure them,” Snell said. “We’ve asked the question of why weren’t those designed with the future in mind so we wouldn’t have to incur that expense again?”

Following discussions with Huckabee, the district’s architect for the original high school project and the current expansion, the district has been assured that both Huckabee and construction manager Bartlett Cocke will assist in correcting the issue.

In an e-mail to Snell following discussions of the issue, Huckabee’s Will Smith said, “While some room was initially planned to be reserved for future expansions, this was not enough room to expand the classroom wings to the extent the District would like to expand today. We are working with Bartlett Cocke to break out the cost of what it’s going to take to relocate the geothermal lines for these new additions. We will compare that cost to the cost if those geothermal lines had been pushed farther out to begin with. (If those lines had been pushed farther out to begin with, the original HS project would’ve bid a little higher). Once we have those two numbers, we will assess the damage done to the District. Any damage caused will be taken care of by Huckabee and Bartlett Cocke. We will do the right thing and own any damage caused by us.”

No one has identified how the issue was overlooked or missed in the original planning.

“I can’t speculate on why, but I feel it is my job and the board’s job to ask those questions and push the people we work with to make the most of taxpayer money,” Snell said. “So we have asked the questions and Huckabee has been good to offer some resolution in that area.”