LHISD Board sets budget, adopts tax rate

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The Liberty Hill ISD Board of Trustees signed off on the district’s budget and tax rate Monday, approving a total budget of $64.8 million across all funds.

The largest portion of the budget, the general fund – which covers everything but food service, Panther Extended Care and debt service – is set at $47.3 million.

The tax rate – set this year at $1.3647 per $100 value – has dropped just over 10 cents, following a mandate from the Texas Legislature during its last session.

The general fund appropriations are further broken down into 18 categories covering all operation costs, the largest portion of that being instructional costs of $27.9 million.

“It is comforting for me to see that of the entire budget of our expenses, 59, nearly 60 percent of our budget is instruction, as it should be,” said Chief Financial Officer Rosanna Guerrero. “I think this is a really great representation of how we prioritize our funds for our students.”

The next highest categories by percentage are facilities and maintenance (8.4 percent) with a budget of $3.96 million, school leadership (5.6 percent) with a budget of $2.65 million, and general administration (4.4 percent) on a $2.1 million budget.

Expenses across all categories aside from debt service saw an increase, primarily due to district-wide growth and the opening of Santa Rita Elementary this month.

During initial budget planning, the district projected a 19 percent increase in property values and Guerrero said once valuations came in they were close to that number. That increase, along with an increase in state allocations due to enrollment growth accounts for the district’s revenue increases.

The debt service fund is projected to generate $17 million in revenues, with $15.1 million in debt service due in the fiscal year.

Current enrollment in the district is at 5,743, an increase of more than 700 students from the end of the last school year. Snell said it is expected a few no shows will decrease that number some.

Taxes
The current tax rate was a 7-cent reduction from the previous budget, and this year districts saw an even larger reduction in rate.

In the 2018-2019 budget year, the combined tax rate was $1.54 with 50 cents of that rate being for debt service. The current year’s rate is $1.47 with the same portion being for debt service.

“Part of House Bill 3 requires the compression of the maintenance and operations tax rate,” Guerrero said. “This is our year two of House Bill 3 and because Liberty Hill ISD is a fast-growing district, we have over the 15.58 percent in growth, we automatically hit that maximum tier one tax rate of .8247. That is part of the House Bill 3 implementation.”

The district had 4 cents to work with based on the state’s funding formula, so the maintenance and operations rate is $0.8647 and the debt service rate remains 50 cents for a combined rate of $1.3647.

At the current rate, a home with a property value of $250,000 would pay $3,675 in LHISD taxes, and under the new rate, the same valued home will pay $3,411.75.

Salaries
The LHISD Board voted in June to approve a one-percent increase for staff from the market midpoint. The across the board raise is increasing the district’s payroll by $345,235.

“In terms of salary and benefits overall, 83 percent are salary and benefits and that’s what we were targeting is that 83 percent,” Guerrero said.

In addition to the one percent, the Board approved a plan that would potentially include future consideration of a one percent, one time stipend later in the year if the budget allows.

“Last year, the Texas Legislature made huge steps with House Bill 3 and all teachers got between a five percent and seven percent raise, and although that’s a great raise I feel they’re still underpaid,” Superintendent Steve Snell said in June. “This year, the money’s just not there. I’m just disappointed we can’t do more, and I think the Board would share that thought.”

With the addition of Santa Rita Elementary, the district has reached about 750 total employees.

Another area of concern for the administration when looking at compensation was for substitute teachers.

“(We have been) looking at the pandemic, looking at campuses, hearing from principals to see how can we maintain the substitutes and support them and make sure we have subs to fill the positions that we need,” Guerrero said. “We have to be competitive in the market so we looked at all the surrounding districts to see what we could do to that rate and we were significantly low.”

To make the district more competitive when it comes to having a pool of substitute teachers, the daily rate for non-certified subs was increased to $90 and certified was boosted to $95. Long-term subs will get $100 per day, those with a degree will receive $120 per day and certified subs serving in long-term positions will get $130 per day.

The rate for substitute nurses was also increased to $95 per day for licensed vocational nurses and EMTs and $140 per day for registered nurses.

The budget also includes funds for the new middle school administration, which will likely be hired in the spring for the school opening next fall.

Fine arts boost
This year’s budget includes a $300,000 line item for fine arts expenditures, something the district has not previously allotted for.

“Working with Dr. (Toni) Hicks we’ve created a new fine arts allocation,” Guerrero said. “This is over $300,000 specifically earmarked for fine arts. In working with Mr. (John) Perrin and the high school, this will be earmarked for band instruments and color guard this next year. This is an allocation we would like to continue on moving forward.”

With the growth of the district, and move up in competitive classification, the district and board believed the earmarked funds were necessary.

“I wanted to say thank you for thinking of the fine arts because I know as we were going into 5A there was concern about being able to compete because they require different instruments and things so I know they are grateful for that,” said Board member Megan Parsons.

Pandemic funds
The district has budgeted $250,000 in COVID-19 pandemic related supplies.

“It was very important to be able to earmark funds to maintain the health and safety protocols that we’re putting into place,” Guerrero said. “We are looking at grants and other sources, but the reality is we need funds now to be able to maintain those protocols, so we have a new specific line item for funding for COVID.”

While the district may be eventually reimbursed for COVID-related expenses, it is necessary to budget those costs up front.

“FEMA is about 18 months to a two-year turnaround time so we have to allocate the expenses in the fiscal year, then if they are approved then we would use the accounting entry to refund that,” Guerrero said.

Snell added that there is a chance school districts in Williamson County may get a portion of the CARES Act funds the county received, which was a total of $93 million to be used for local relief efforts related to the pandemic.

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