Second high school raises questions, concerns

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Since students first walked into the current Liberty Hill High School in 2013 the specter of this growing community having to build a second high school has rattled around quietly in the back of everyone’s minds.

That concern became a proposed reality when the district’s long range planning committee suggested in January that a second high school be included in a May bond package.

“It was a very difficult decision because as we talk about it amongst ourselves – inside Liberty Hill ISD and with the community – because everybody loves Liberty Hill with one high school,” said LHISD Superintendent Steve Snell. “Having to split the high school into two is a very, very tough decision. We get and totally understand the desire to be a one high school town, but as large as we’re going to be we just didn’t think it would be good for kids.”

The committee proposed a $165 million second high school as part of the $491.7 bond package and the school board agreed, putting the issue to the voters on May 1.

In working with the long range planning committee, all scenarios were discussed and all options were on the table, from maintaining one high school, building a second, or considering a ninth-grade center.

“At the end of the day as we talked about what we value in the high school, it was the size, it was the fact that kids can compete – at the highest level and win – with the current size we have,” Snell said.

So rather than deciding to try and make a single high school, with potentially 6,000 students, work in LHISD, the decision was made to aim for two campuses with an enrollment around 2,500.
The primary reason was to make sure all opportunities were available to all students.

“It was more than just about sports, it was the other enrichment activities like career and technology opportunities, the opportunity to be in advanced academics,” Snell said. “The committee decided the sweet spot for the high school was 2,500, maybe flex a little bigger if it has to, but that would give us the opportunity to be successful and have more opportunities for kids to participate in everything.”

Dividing into two different high schools is not something Snell believes will divide the community in its support of students.

“This community supports kids, and I think they’ll support kids at both schools, and if you look well beyond the 2020s and into the 2030s, we’re going to have to have a high school beyond these two, and possibly even more,” he said.

According to projections included in the most recent demographics report from Population and Survey Analysts (PASA), the low-end projection for district enrollment by 2030 is 18,805, more than three times today’s enrollment. High school projections show the 2021 enrollment of 1,705 is expected to reach 5,896 by 2030. Even in the next five years that high school enrollment number is expected to double to more than 3,000 students, far surpassing the capacity of the current campus even with current ongoing additions.

Snell also said the argument can be made that maintaining one high school at such a high enrollment can erode the culture in the district as well.

“What makes Liberty Hill schools great is the fact that we know the kids and the kids know us, and the parents are involved,” he said. “We want to be those schools, whether elementary middle or high school, that the kids love to go to, have pride in their school work, achieve academically, in fine arts, through sports and clubs. Having two high schools just gives more kids opportunities to do that.”

Some have questioned the expansion of the current high school, saying the campus has empty classrooms, but Snell said there is no truth to that.

“The high school is built for 1,600 and next year we will have 1,700, there won’t be any space,” he said. “We will add on space, so there will be a little extra space for a couple of years but that school will be full again and we will have to expand again.”

Projection questions
Questions have been raised about the reliability of student enrollment projections over a 10-year period, but Snell said the community should keep in mind this bond is not about being ready for the 2030 projections, but to be prepared for the next five years, with a projected 12,000 student enrollment. And he is confident in those projections.

“That data is a three-inch binder full of information and (demographers) are talking to every home builder and developer and they have when houses will start, when they’ll close, analytics by neighborhood on what types of families will buy there,” Snell said. “When you go out three years, the difference between high and low is very small,” Snell said of future projections. “When you get five years out the difference is greater. Even if we get to (11,000 in five years) which is the lowest projection, that’s still doubling in size in five years. As we get 10 years out those differences are a little wider.

“The final decision was to get it down to five because we’re very certain about the next five years, and this gives us the opportunity to adjust, and start planning after three and a half to four years for the next bond,” Snell said. “The last thing we wanted to do was go out for a 10-year bond and ultimately have it not be enough because the growth came quicker.”

There is the possibility of an unexpected downturn in the economy, but such a change is something that can’t be foreseen and therefore doesn’t change today’s growth projections. Even if the bond package is passed, construction will stay on pace to meet demand, and doesn’t have to continue in the face of a dramatic turn in the economy.

“We will sell bonds and build schools as needed, and there are enrollment trigger points which we look at,” Snell said, adding it will take six months to design a new high school and two years for construction. “We have to be proactive enough to have schools completed, ready for students when we need it. If the growth slows, everything in our process slows with it.”

Snell said he does not have a crystal ball, but nothing from demographers or what the district is seeing in the housing market makes anyone believe a dramatic change is on the horizon.

“There are always economic sways good or bad,” he said. “When you look at the companies moving to Austin and the jobs created, they’re moving from other states and coming here and those jobs are going to continue to be there. All economic indicators show that we are slated to boom. There will be ebbs and flows along the way, but we don’t see an economic downturn in the next few years.”

Some have cited the example of Hutto ISD’s situation in the last economic recession just over a decade ago, but Snell, who was in that district during part of that time, said Hutto made the best of a difficult situation.

“There’s been some misinformation about what happened in Hutto,” Snell said. “There was a brand new school that was open for a year, and when they decided to close it the decision was made for efficiency, but actually a junior college moved in, transformed the building, and Hutto ISD was able to gain revenue from that and create a great partnership for our community and high school kids. To me, Hutto is an example of how schools got creative during an economic downturn.”

Even the argument that Hutto has forgone a second high school in favor of a ninth-grade center is not totally accurate, according to Snell.

“What people might or might not know is Hutto had a ninth through 12th grade high school and they actually built a ninth-grade campus onto that building to get it up to 1,400 students and eventually 1,600 students,” Snell said. “Now that school is overcrowded and they’re building a new high school. They’re starting with a ninth-grade center and as they build the school it will eventually be ninth through 12th.”

The second high school in Liberty Hill ISD is not slated to be a ninth-grade campus, but is planned to be opened in phases.

“We’re very strategic with how we plan and how we open schools,” Snell said. “It’s not like you open a school and immediately it is full. You’ve got to build the capacity and in the case of a high school it is likely three years before you get all four grades in that school.”

Financial questions
While little has been said in community discussions, some have voiced displeasure with the school district’s financial accountability, and that’s something Snell vehemently disagrees with.

“We continue to receive a Superior Rating with the state FIRST rating, which is our state accountability,” he said. “People should look at the work done by our business office to achieve an exceptional bond rating, and all the cost-saving approaches we’ve brought to the district. Separate from the bond, I will talk business and financial accountability all day long and how proud I am of the business department.”

On the transparency front, Snell also said the community should not forget about the district’s website where all bond plans and finances can be found.

“Every dollar we spend is online,” he said. “It is an overwhelming amount of information on our website, but we will answer any questions asked.

Online relief?
With the online opportunities created for students through the COVID-19 pandemic, the question has been asked whether a more permanent online education opportunity in the district might be one way to ease the stress on facilities as the student population grows, but Snell said as of now, that is not something that LHISD is considering.

“It’s a good conversation to have,” Snell said of the future. “While a lot of that is driven by the desires of the community, most of it is driven by how schools are funded. TEA (Texas Education Agency) tweaks their plans off and on all year, and plans for next year right now in Liberty Hill is to have 100 percent in-person school and not have a remote option. Those plans can always change.”

The district is currently at 82 percent in-person schooling, demonstrating that most families, even through the COVID-19 pandemic, prefer in-person learning.

The district is not closing the door on future opportunities, but Snell still believes having students on campus is the best option.

“We talk all the time about the future of public education, whether it’s online or in person,” he said. “My personal belief is we have an excellent teacher in the classroom and the best way to get your education in Liberty Hill is in person. I understand there will be members of our community who might like the remote option or might want to do that. Right now we’re not planning to have that option for next year.”

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