An annual report by demographers recommends that Leander ISD build nine new schools within eight years to meet swelling enrollment, according to a report commissioned by Leander ISD.
LISD has plans and funding to open at least four schools: Danielson Middle School in 2020, Tarvin Elementary School in 2021, Elementary School No. 29 in 2022 and Elementary School No. 30 in 2023. The report recommends an additional four elementary schools, or one per year from 2021-27.
This year’s report also recommends a new middle school—LISD’s 10th—be built in either the northern or southern part of the district.
While LISD officials said the annual demographic update serves an important role, it is not the only metric for determining how LISD will address steadily increasing enrollment. Other solutions—such as school rezoning and the creation of magnet-type schools at campuses under capacity—can also help accommodate growth.
LISD encompasses 198.75 square miles in mostly Williamson County and a smaller section of Travis County, according to school officials. Each year the seven-member board of trustees hires Population and Survey Analysts, a company in College Station that performs demographic reports for more than a dozen school districts in Central Texas, according to PASA’s website.
The 2019-20 annual report—which cost the district $90,740 and the results of which were first discussed at the Nov. 7 LISD meeting—pulls data from over a dozen government and private sources to present current data and project future snapshots of LISD, according to PASA.
PASA predicts robust enrollment and population growth to remain strong in LISD for the next 10 years—even if a sudden, unforeseen recession were to occur.
During PASA’s presentation at the Nov. 7 meeting, company spokesperson Pat Guseman said the 10-year housing projections were “the highest we’ve ever projected for this district” since she began studying the district in 1996. Last year, the report predicted 44,419 new housing units over a decade.
“This 45,000 [projected increase in housing over 10 years] is one of the highest numbers that we see in terms of the districts we work with,” Guseman said. “And we work with basically the majority of the highest-growth districts in the state.”
During the Great Recession that started in 2007, Guseman said new housing construction in LISD dropped 30%, and enrollment growth was slower. However, LISD fared better than most districts in Texas during that economic period.
“During recessions, the coveted districts keep chugging along,” Guseman said.Trustee Aaron Johnson asked during the Nov. 7 LISD meeting whether an unforeseen economic downturn might substantially reduce growth projections and, consequently, the need to accommodate more students.
PASA officials said no.
“This area has had 50 years of low unemployment, and that is the biggest predictor of parents moving to this suburban location,” Guseman said. This year’s 297-page report predicts robust growth, particularly in Leander and extraterritorial jurisdictions just outside its city limits—but LISD officials said recommended locations for future schools can change from year to year.
“I’ve heard 17 [demographic reports] now,” Waggoner, who was first elected to the board in 2002, told Community Impact Newspaper. “You learn over time that this is just a recommendation, and it can change tomorrow.”
Jimmy Disler works as LISD’s chief facility and operations officer and is a 34-year district employee. He stressed that the enrollment areas in the demographic update do not necessarily reflect future LISD school zones.
However, he said that has not stopped some developers in the past from erroneously marketing new residential areas as future locations for new schools.
“These are catchment areas, not enrollment zones, in the report,” Disler said.
‘The students are coming’
While new school location recommendations may change annually, enrollment projections for the district as a whole have been historically accurate, according to LISD board of trustees President Trish Bode.
“We have been watching the trends. [PASA officials] are hitting their numbers,” Bode told Community Impact Newspaper. “When they project we’re going to have 41,000, we get 41,000.”
LISD experienced a 2.57%, year-over-year enrollment increase in 2019-20 with 1,003 new students, according to PASA. Leander ISD officials have recently upped the one-year student increase to more than 1,100.
By 2029, LISD will swell to 54,738 students—a 32.45% increase over the current enrollment, according to the report. “What we’re going to be thinking about is, how do we do responsible growth as we hit 54,000 students being enrolled?” Bode said.
LISD officials said they have planned for future growth by purchasing large, undeveloped parcels throughout the 198.75-square-mile district. The $454.4 million school bond approved in 2017 earmarked $61.9 million for land purchases for nine future schools, according to LISD.
“We know the students are coming,” Bode said.
But LISD officials said building new schools is not the only alternative to addressing enrollment increases.
Alternatives to new campuses
Out of the 42 LISD campuses studied in the demographic update, enrollment at nine schools—mostly in the southern parts of the district in Austin and Cedar Park—are expected to drop by 2029.
LISD officials say this could create an opportunity for magnet schools or schools of choice, both of which LISD has been researching over the past year, and reduce the need for new campuses.Both school models would offer “specialized educational offerings and learning environments outside traditional, comprehensive schools,” according to LISD documents.
“The report may say to build a school a year, but we may decide to redistrict or re-boundary some of these schools and not do something like [build more schools] if that’s the right method for us,” Waggoner said. “We may take an elementary school and make it a magnet-type school or a school of choice and bring in other populations.”Johnson said at the Nov. 7 meeting that LISD’s research into magnet schools and schools of choice were out of a desire to improve students’ education, not address changing enrollment.
“The primary reason for schools of choice has not been to use the best use of the space,” he said. “We’re not exploring it simply for facility purposes.”
Another bond is possible
During the Nov. 7 presentation to trustees, PASA spokesperson Stacey Tepera told the trustees that they should “start to think about bond planning.”If new campuses need to be built above and beyond the four funded by the 2017 bond, school officials acknowledged another school bond would probably be needed to fund those large capital projects.“It’s a part of the process,” Bode said of a potential bond in the future. “If we’re going to need campuses, that would be the next step—but we’re not to those steps yet.”
Unlike the $559 million bond that voters approved in 2007 that lasted 10 years, the most recent bond—for $454.4 million that passed in 2017—was intended to meet capital project needs over a shorter time span, according to LISD officials.
“The last bond [in 2017] was only a three-year bond, so the community and that bond committee knew that they’d have to be coming back with the next several demographers reports to decide the next three years,” Waggoner said.
The demand for new schools may cool a bit after 2029, according to PASA.After 2029, PASA predicts that, due to a lack of “easily developable land” and current land-use rules, LISD’s above-average development should slow down. Guseman said that could change if current building codes were eased to allow construction on additional areas such as hilly or more challenging terrain.
Until then, LISD’s trend of consistent student and overall population growth should continue, according to sources.However, Disler said long-term district projections often change.
“The first five years are pretty good indicators, but it’s those second five years—it’s going to be different,” he said. “[The 10-year projection] gives you an idea, but you just don’t set your sails on it because [the projections are] going to change.”
School officials said they will address growing enrollment based on what’s best for the students—and in the case of a bond—what constituents prefer.
“We don’t necessarily look at bond elections as a negative,” Waggoner said.
“It’s how our district continues to grow.”