It looked like a tough sell: Get Leander ISD voters to approve a bond—above and beyond other taxes for public education—that would spend $11,651 for each student.
And yet in 2017, with a churning economy, swelling enrollment and aging school infrastructure, LISD voters answered the call.
Nearly 67% of voters approved the $454,400,000 bond. Since then, LISD school construction and renovation have been moving at a breakneck pace.
“This is the most construction jobs we have ever had in one summer,” Jimmy Disler, LISD’s chief facility and operations officer and 34-year district employee, recently told the LISD board of trustees. “It’s just remarkable.”
Nearly two years later, school officials say they have lived up to their monthslong campaign promise leading up to the 2017 vote: to meet the growing needs of LISD while providing transparent and efficient use of taxpayer money.
For Vic Villareal, who co-chaired the bond steering committees for both 2007 and ’17, it came down to messaging and people.
“There wasn’t really a formula or a template that we used, because both bonds were different,” Villareal said. “But what helped both of them succeed is communicating the needs—and with both bonds these were needs, not wants—and having great people who can communicate those needs.”
Two years in
As of August, LISD has paid out $121.3 million of the bond. Many bond projects have been budgeted but not yet paid for, according to LISD.
Outside of an eventual $38.7 million for technology at all schools, the largest expenditures to date have been on two new schools, to address large residential developments, and renovations to four more schools.
The new Larkspur Elementary School, which cost $37.8 million, was built in the northern part of the district, to accommodate the Larkspur and Bryson subdivisions. Danielson Middle School, which cost $63.4 million and is scheduled to open in August 2020, will serve the Deerbrooke, Lackey and Greatwood subdivisions in the northwestern part of the district.
The largest ongoing renovations are $38 million of work at Vandegrift High School, $21.5 million at Leander Middle School, $15.2 million at Cedar Park Middle School and $11.15 million at Cedar Park High School.
Renovations at Leander Middle School—which first opened in 1974 as Leander HIgh School—have been some of the most profound, officials said.
“It’s basically a new school,” LMS Principal Mark Koller said.
According to LISD documents, every major 2017 bond project to date has come in either at or under its projected cost.
Disler, who got a job with LISD in 1985 before taking over construction in 1997, credits the experience LISD has had with previous bonds.
“The first bond I dealt with was in ’97, and we utilized outside resources for a lot of pricing. … And when [price estimates] don’t include [funds for all possible expenditures], you’re in [financial] trouble,” he said.
LISD voters approved six bonds in 14 years—1994, ’97, 2000, ’03, ‘06 and ‘07—giving LISD a few lessons on what does and does not work.
“We started doing [cost estimates] in-house. We’ve built so much, and we know what the costs are. Our data that we use and how we price it is right on target,” Disler said.
To determine building and infrastructure needs, LISD formed subcommittees that in turn reported to the bond steering committee, which would eventually take its recommendations before the board of trustees for approval.
Villareal said well over 100 people served on the steering committee or one of four subcommittees; these people included educators, parents, business leaders and even community members with no direct ties to LISD.
“Our community members—they were the ones who spent time with our administrators to go look at schools, look at the needs, [and] consider the things coming up that need to be replaced, improved or whatever,” said LISD trustee Grace Barber-Jordan, who was first elected in 2001, making her the longest-serving active trustee, and who has experienced four bond votes.
Leading up to the 2017 bond vote, LISD held 70 information sessions across the district, according to school officials.
“These were PTA meetings; these were booster club meetings; Rotary—there’s all sorts of community engagement,” said Trish Bode, the board of trustees president, who was elected in 2015.
In the summer before the 2017 vote, LISD hired a polling company to gauge support for the bond. LISD spokesperson Corey Ryan said 42% of those polled were undecided, but LISD officials interviewed said they were cautiously optimistic.
“You never really know, but we had a lot of good feedback from those 70 meetings,” Bode said.
While 33% voted against the bond’s passage leading up to the vote, “[LISD] never saw any organized opposition,” Ryan said.
“If there were questions, it was just more about the process,” Bode said. “Maybe they didn’t know we had the community meetings and didn’t understand how the decisions were made, like, ‘How did you pick this number?’”
Had the bond failed, LISD officials had planned to return to the committees to get direction.
“In a way, we did have a ‘plan B’: What does the community see? What are the needs?” Bode said. “We have our bond [advisory] committee still together. They still meet [quarterly] and look at how things are going.”
When the Great Recession began in 2007, at about the same time the $559 million bond was approved, school officials said they realized passing another bond in the near future was unlikely. LISD student growth fell behind earlier projections as well, according to officials.
“The growth and the economy [slowed down],” Disler said. “We still were growing some, but we were fortunate. We had that big bond in ’07 that carried us.”
And LISD officials said the bond had been designed to be spent over several years.
“We promised our community that we wouldn’t use it until we needed it,” Barber-Jordan said. “We were able to spread it out a long time.”
The Great Recession also brought a silver lining for LISD building needs. Construction costs had dropped significantly, “allowing LISD to stretch approved funding,” according to a column former Superintendent Dan Troxell wrote in a 2017 LISD newsletter.
LISD grew to 43 schools Aug. 15 when Larkspur Elementary School—a bond-funded, $37.8 million facility in Leander—opened its doors to 532 students.
The campus total will increase to 44 next year when Danielson Middle School, also in Leander, goes online. To accommodate large subdivisions being built in the northern part of the district, three more elementary schools—Tarvin, Nos. 29-30—will open by August 2023, officials said.
And 13.6% of all current bond funds—$61.9 million— is for land purchases for seven elementary schools, one middle school and one high school beyond 2023.
Pair that with the approximately 1,000 additional students enrolling in LISD every year, and it seems safe to say that there will not be another 10-year gap between bond requests.
Villareal predicted that, just like in 2007 and 2017, the next bond will probably require a similar balancing act of messaging as well as recruiting the right committee members.
LISD officials realize the responsibility will fall squarely on their shoulders.
“One thing we don’t want to do is lose the trust of the public,” Disler said.
“We’ve got to be able to deliver.”