Planning for a rapidly growing school district is a little like predicting the weather, according to Tim Savoy, the public information officer for Hays CISD.
“You know that the weather forecast for tomorrow or the next day is pretty accurate,” Savoy said. “If somebody has a weather forecast for next week or next month, it’s not going to be as accurate. But you have to base your planning on those long-term forecasts.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, Hays County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, which means that its two largest school districts—HCISD and San Marcos CISD—are seeing enrollment numbers rise rapidly.
“We just keep growing,” SMCISD Public Information Officer Andrew Fernandez said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Growth means that the districts have to anticipate, years in advance, the need for new schools and for other types of infrastructure, which means predicting how many students the district will have to educate as well as where and when those students are likely to materialize.
Accuracy is critical because new schools are a major investment.
“You have to get it as right as you possibly can because we’re talking about a major investment from taxpayers,” Savoy said, “The more you can get it right, the better it is for the taxpayer.”
For assistance with long-range planning, both HCISD and SMCISD turn to a professional demographer who works for school districts all over the state.
Bob Templeton has been calculating school district growth for 20 years. Though he originally studied to be a city manager, by 1996 he was working as a planner for Keller ISD, north of Fort Worth.
“At the time Keller was one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state,” Templeton said. “And then the surrounding districts started asking me to help them, and then it just kind of mushroomed to where we created a consulting firm.”
In 2006 he founded Templeton Demographics, which now has 11 full-time employees and provides projection not just for Hays CISD and San Marcos CISD but other districts in the region, including Pflugerville ISD, Round Rock ISD, Georgetown ISD, Manor ISD, Hutto ISD and Bastrop ISD.
“Texas is a great place to be in terms of population growth,” Templeton said.
In order to provide projections to clients, Templeton Demographics keeps track of a number of factors including job growth and infrastructure plans, but most critical is the development taking place around the district.
“For us, the key piece of data that we watch the closest is the housing market,” Templeton said. “We literally are tracking all of the platting that is taking place within the cities and counties, and we put it into a database so that we can keep track of how many subdivisions are platted.”
Templeton also employs teams that track development on the ground.
“Our survey teams are physically driving and recording how many homes are started and how many homes are closed and occupied,” he said.
More students, more schools
Enrollment numbers for the 2018-19 school year will not be finalized until October, but HCISD expects to exceed 20,000 students this year; as of Aug. 29, SMCISD enrollment was at 8,100, but that is expected to rise.
According to the report from the first quarter of 2018 that Templeton Demographics prepared for HCISD, between the 2012-13 school year and the 2017-18 school year HCISD enrollment grew by 19.9 percent and SMCISD enrollment grew by 8.6 percent.
Both districts have had to look at ways to expand student capacity, and in May 2017 both proposed bonds with provisions to build or expand schools as well as to fund support facilities.
In SMCISD voters approved a $107.3 million bond, which included money for the construction of the new Rodriguez Elementary School to serve an additional 660 students, as well as an addition to San Marcos High School that will expand its capacity to 2,700 students and an addition to Miller Middle School that will expand its capacity to 1,054 students.
There are also funds to eventually renovate all elementary schools. The only school, according to Fernandez, that will not be expanded is Goodnight Middle School, which used to be the high school and therefore already has a larger capacity than Miller.
In HCISD, a 2017 bond approved by voters allocated a total of $250 million for a new high school that will accommodate 2,250 students, a new elementary school that will accommodate 900 students, and a new campus for Buda Elementary School —which in the 2017-18 school year enrolled 581 students—that will expand capacity to 900.
Growing districts, however, also require other kinds of infrastructure. The HCISD 2017 bond, for example included $16,062,000 for a new transportation center, while the SMCISD bond included $3.8 million for a new facility for school buses.
“It’s not just building schools to keep up with the growth,” Savoy said, adding that as the district adds a third and then a fourth high school it will have to consider building another competition stadium for sports. “It’s building those other facilities as well.”
From bond to building
Building any school is a long process, but elementary schools are simpler. In addition to requiring less land, developers of subdivisions are sometimes willing to donate land for an elementary school.
“For an elementary site, that’s usually only 12-15 acres; therefore [a developer is]not going to be giving up as many lots,” Templeton said. “It’s kind of a win-win. It’s a win because they can sell their lots faster and at a premium.”
Rodriguez Elementary, for example, is under construction in the Trace development.
“We truly are extremely lucky to have developers, businesses and city leaders that really believe in our education,” Fernandez said.
In HCISD, all schools under construction are being built on land that the district already owned; HCISD periodically either sets aside funds to purchase land as part of a bond or uses leftover funds from a bond to secure future sites for schools.
“We bought the land for Johnson High School 20 years ago,” Savoy said. “It was considerably cheaper for taxpayers to buy it then than to buy it now.”
But even choosing the location is challenging, because of the need to be able to predict as accurately as possible the location of future growth, as well as align predictions with the availability of utilities, traffic patterns, and access to emergency services.
The pace of development throughout Hays County means that school districts have to think ahead when offered the chance to buy land, especially because it is much harder to secure land for middle and high schools.
Savoy said that a larger developer may work with a district to provide a location for a middle school, but that is not the case with high schools, which require a minimum of 80 acres.
Planning for future growth
Even though both school districts are significantly expanding capacity in the next year, the districts cannot stop planning for the future; according demographic projects, in the 2027-28 school year HCISD is expected to enroll more than 25,000 students, while SMCISD is expected to enroll more than 10,000.
In addition to the short and long-range numbers, Templeton provides what the company calls a “build-out model,” which show the maximum population when all land has been developed. In HCISD, total build-out will take 40 years, and HCISD is already looking at the time when it may need yet another high school, though Savoy said it will be a few years.
In SMCISD, Templeton said that truly rapid growth a few years away because developers yet to build on land purchased along the I-30 corridor.
“These are massive developments,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when they’re going to happen—they haven’t broke ground on some of those yet.”
The next step for both school districts will be to redraw attendance zones for the new schools. On Aug. 30, the HCISD board of trustees voted to impanel a committee of 35 people to redraw the high school attendance map; Fernandez said that SMCISD is in the initial phases of the rezoning process but will hold meetings and seek community feedback beginning this fall.
“We’re in the education business,” Fernandez said. “So we’re going to learn from what worked for other school districts and what didn’t work for other school districts—we want to get this right so all of our families are accommodated through this process.”