By CASSIE MCKEE, Four Points News
Leander ISD is the 14th fastest-growing school district in the state of Texas and the growth isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon. With a current student population of 36,192, the district is only about halfway to its estimated maximum population of between 65,000 to 75,000 students, according to Bret Champion, superintendent of LISD.
“You can’t talk about Leander ISD without talking about growth,” Champion said at his State of the District presentation a few weeks ago at Hill Country Bible Church. “We’re a destination district. People are trying to come to Leander ISD. We celebrate that.”
Champion said between the years of 1999 to 2014, the district grew by 177 percent.
Factors fueling growth
Veronica Sopher, assistant superintendent of community and governmental relations, said there are several factors fueling the growth, including the growing economy in Central Texas and the high quality of life. She said many families are drawn to LISD specifically because of its high quality schools. Many of the families moving into LISD are highly-educated, with 49 percent having a bachelor’s degree, according to a recent demographer report.
“We have a highly-educated population coming to an area most likely for work,” Sopher said. “They’re researching the school districts and they do have their choice of areas. One of the things that is fueling our area is families’ choice of where they want their kids to go to school.”
A recent demographer report showed that LISD has a relatively low percentage of economically disadvantaged students, with only 18.9 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunches, compared to the state average of 59.8 percent. The district also has a high STARR passage rate of 83.3 percent, compared to the state average of 71.8 percent. The median income level is also high at $86,157, compared to an average of $61,750 in the Austin metro area.
Sopher estimated that the growth in LISD began in the early 2000s.
“We’ve been a fast-growth district for many years,” she said.
Sopher said one of the biggest challenges of a fast-growing district is managing the building program, to ensure the district is meeting the facility needs of the community.
“With all those students moving in, you have to have a place to put them,” Champion said.
The district currently has 24 elementary schools, eight middle schools and five comprehensive high schools. Reed Elementary is the newest school; it opened in the fall in Cedar Park. Two more schools are planned for the near future, both in Leander. Christine Camacho Elementary School is expected to open on Municipal Drive in the fall, and Tom Glenn High School will open north of the Benbrook Ranch subdivision in 2016.
Another challenge for the district is the management of debt. The district uses bond money to pay for new school construction. Champion said the district’s cumulative debt on the books right now is about $1.582 billion.
“With growth comes debt,” Champion said. “It’s just like when you move into your house. You buy your house, you get a 30-year mortgage. We do the same thing with schools. We are going to be using these buildings for decades. It’s not unreasonable that everyone who uses that building has a stake in paying for that building. You see bonds structured kind of like a house payment for 30-40 years.”
To maintain a 15 to 1 student to teacher ratio, the district must hire new teachers every year. Of the district’s more than 4,342 current employees, 2,345 are teachers. In addition to new teachers, the district must also hire additional administrative and auxiliary staff to keep up with the growth. Since 2011, the district has added 100 new employees each year.
“Sometimes I hear people saying to balance the budget we just need to cut more administrators,” Champion said. “The ratio of 156 administrators to 4,300 employees is pretty good. We have a reasonable ratio there.”
Slight deceleration in growth this year
This year’s enrollment numbers did reflect an unexpected deceleration in growth. Sopher said the demographer’s report showed the reasons behind this are fewer younger students in the district due to rising home values and fewer starter homes being available, younger families building fewer new homes and a lack of regeneration in built-out subdivisions, meaning that once a couple’s children grow up and move out of the home, they are staying in the home rather than moving out.
“While we are experiencing a little bit of a slowdown, it by no means is an indication that we are slowing down,” Sopher said. “This actually gives us a chance to take a step back, manage our growth and little bit better and strategize with the community on how we want to move forward.”
The district recently held a series of Growth Management Workshops to gain input from the community on ideas for managing future growth. To see an abridged version of the presentation and also respond to a community survey, visit www.leanderisd.org/default.aspx?name=com.growth.