Snell discusses ins and outs of potential bond election
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
With a $491 million bond proposal now on the table, it is up to the LHISD Board of Trustees to make a final decision on exactly what will be put in front of the voters May 1.
That decision should come at the Feb. 8 meeting, after Board members have had two weeks to consider the information one last time. But the information is not brand new to the Board.
“The Board has been involved every step of the way with the committee,” said Superintendent Steve Snell. “They’ve heard the conversations, they understand how this specific proposal evolved over the four-month conversation.”
As part of the meeting Monday, the Board will work out the ballot language and specific propositions.
“We will go over how every proposition will be worded, exactly what’s in each proposition,” he said. “I’m going to make a good recommendation to the Board and they’ll have all the data they need to be able to vote and then we will move forward from there.”
As proposed, the bond on the table calls for additions and renovations to Liberty Hill Elementary and the new Louine Noble Elementary – currently the Intermediate School campus – to bring them up to 800 student capacity and ensure facilities are on par with the newer campuses.
It also includes two new elementary campuses as well as funds for the design of the eighth elementary campus.
There is a third middle school included as well as design funds for a fourth.
The biggest ticket item in the proposal is a second high school with a projected price tag of $165 million.
Another $101 million is planned for infrastructure projects that include technology improvements, maintenance, buses and funds for land purchase for the new campuses.
Snell said he understands it is a lot to digest for voters.
“To me, at the end of the day that number is a large number,” he said. “People have to know this was a very, very thorough process and the responsibility of this committee was enormous and they took it very seriously.”
The proposal was the result of a series of meetings by a 65-member Long Range Planning Committee, and Snell said this is an opportunity to make proactive decisions about the district’s future amid huge growth.
“We have an unbelievable opportunity to build Liberty Hill the right way and not be caught off guard and not be caught with overcrowded schools or portables or those things nobody wants,” he said. “We are charged with keeping that Liberty Hill small-town feel no matter how we grow. We made sure during this process that things like family and tradition and opportunities and excellent education stayed in the forefront of every conversation.”
While passage of the bond will extend the district’s debt out over more years in the future, by law it is impossible for any bond passed to increase the debt tax rate, also known as the Interest and Sinking (I&S) fund, because it is already at $0.50 per $100 valuation — the maximum allowed by the state.
It is one of the messages Snell most wants to share with voters and one he feels will be difficult because of requirements on how bond propositions are worded.
“That’s going to be a challenge for us because the law, the way it’s written on the ballot, requires wording that says this is a tax increase,” Snell said. “But the tax rate will not increase because it can’t by law.”
Financially, the district has the bond capacity to take on the new debt, even with the debt tax rate capped at the current level.
“People need to understand that we can afford this responsibly and be ready for the next bond which is not too far down the road,” he said.
As far as tax rates overall, while the I&S rate has been at and would remain at 50 cents, the Maintenance and Operations rate was reduced by 11 cents last year per a requirement by the state when the Legislature increased school funding from other sources while requiring the M&O rate be reduced.
The Committee settled on the proposal for one large bond for a variety of reasons, primarily due to the urgency for new student capacity in the next few years.
“The committee talked about having a bond every year, having a bond every other year, every four years, have one bond to cover the next 10 years,” Snell said. “The reason they settled on this is this will get us the schools we need to cover the projected enrollment for the next four to five years.”
If the bond package passes, bonds will only be sold as required for projects, but having them approved helps speed the process and eliminates what Snell said is the potential for “bond fatigue” if voters are asked to support new projects each year.
“(The growth) might speed up, it might slow down, we don’t sell all the bonds at once, we sell them as needed,” he said. “We will need that voter approval so we can sell when needed so we’re not behind. We didn’t want voters to get bond fatigue. I want to be clear that we’re going to need to build schools for at least the next 20 years. This bond is covering roughly four to five. At the end of the day, do you want to vote on a bond every single year over and over again?”
The pace of growth and projections played critical roles in determining how to proceed.
Snell pointed to the fact that the student population in LHISD has grown by 1,500 students in his two years at the helm — an increase of nearly 30 percent.
“That’s pretty significant,” he said. “Next year we will open up a new school and have a high school that’s been expanded to 2,100 (student capacity), and all three of those schools that were approved by the voters in 2018 will be full by November of 2021. We want to be responsible to stay ahead of this growth and we want the community to trust us in our planning.”
He also pointed out that in Texas there is no other mechanism to fund the construction of new schools or pay for large infrastructure projects or expansions.
Enrollment alone may lead to the conclusion new facilities will be needed in Liberty Hill, but many other considerations were included in mapping out the committee’s bond proposal.
Some of those considerations were equity of schools, efficiency of scale, and campus student capacity.
“We have three elementary schools right now that are built for 800 kids roughly and then we have one that can only hold a little over 400,” Snell said. “To help the district be efficient, the committee felt that all schools should be the same size so they have the same amount of staff, the same amount of budget issues and things like that. The smaller a school is the more expensive it is.”
That balancing of school capacity also puts a focus on equity across all campuses, from similar-sized cafeterias and libraries, to program opportunities.
On the flip side, while schools can be too small to be efficient and equitable, they can also be too big to maintain the culture the committee said it wants to maintain.
“The larger a school is, the more efficient it is economically, but they wanted to keep the small-town feel of Liberty Hill as well,” Snell said.
After looking at a wide variety of campus capacities based on grade levels, the committee settled on the target of 800 students for elementary campuses and 1,200 for middle school.
According to Snell, those numbers reflect a comfort level where there are not too many students, but also come with some economic efficiencies as well.
The district’s calculations show those capacity decisions work out to saving taxpayers the need to build one more elementary and one more middle school campus beyond those now included in the proposal, which Snell said is an estimated $100 million saving down the road.
A second high school?
Something much of the community has staunchly resisted in the past is the discussion of a second high school.
“When I go around and talk to people they want one high school, they want one Liberty Hill,” Snell said.
He agreed, saying that’s what the district would like to maintain as well, but when working through that question, the committee felt there was another important factor that led to the decision a second high school would be needed.
“The committee did not want a high school that big,” Snell said. “They wanted kids to have opportunities, identity, chances to participate, and so based on that and the need – looking at when we think the kids are going to be enrolled – the committee decided to start that second high school now. It won’t be long until we have to start talking about the third high school.”
Current enrollment at Liberty Hill High School is 1,513 students, which is projected to grow to 2,793 by 2025 and over 5,000 by 2030.
To build a new campus it takes land, and Snell said demographers have projected the need for 10 elementary schools, four middle schools and two high schools over what the district already has over the next decade. That means planning for future sites is always on the radar.
“We currently work on locking up future sites, I’ve been doing that since I got here,” Snell said. “The old saying goes buying land is like planting a tree, the best time to do it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. The cheaper we can buy the land the better, and if we can buy it now that saves taxpayers a lot of money in the future. That has an impact on how much debt we incur over the next 20 years.”
The district hopes that by working with developers there can be a partnership that helps identify sites early.
“Being as proactive as we can and working with every developer that comes in town to fight for land, collaborate on school sites – possibly even free school sites – is our goal,” he said. “We want to be good partners, but we need our developers to know if they’re putting in this many houses they need to know we need a school in the middle of that neighborhood.”
As it has worked through the projects included in the current $98.6 million bond, approved in November 2018, the district has maintained a website and hosted a series of meetings to help members of the community stay up to date on expenditures and progress,
A similar site will also be available if the new bond passes, showing project progress, all expenditures and change orders and their cost along the way.
Snell said there will also be many opportunities leading up to the election to ask questions and get answers.
“There are lots of committee members people can talk to if they have questions, including the Board and myself,” he said. “There will be lots of opportunities to hear me talk about the demographics, the information, what we’re looking at community wise,. Whether you’re for or against it I’d love to sit down and talk to you and explain what we’re doing with this bond.
“We should all be able to sit down and talk about what you like or don’t like. I haven’t met anybody who loves the growth, but at the end of the day we have to manage it proactively and responsibly. The finished product will be judged 20 years from now.”
The data relied upon by LHISD is put together and presented by Population and Survey Analysts (PASA), a demographics firm located in Bryan. The most recent report was shared with the school board at its Jan. 25 meeting — the same night the Long Range Planning Committee made its presentation on the bond proposal.
These demographers have projected the Fall 2021 enrollment for the district at 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.
New housing occupancies are expected to reach 26,000 between now and 2030 when including single family, multifamily and mixed use development. Within the district, student occupancy is expected to be .49 per household for single family residences and .53 per household per multifamily residence.
The District’s Long Range Planning Committee is made up of 65 community members, from residents and parents to business owners and community leaders.
“The committee did an outstanding job representing the community, making sure that we’re being very responsible with taxpayer money, with our debt and what we’re asking to do,” Snell said. “I couldn’t be more proud of their work.”
The committee met five times over a four-month period to consider the issue of planning for the district’s future growth needs by assessing existing facilities, reviewing financial data and demographics information.