In August 2019, Hays CISD will do something rare: open a new high school. And that means redrawing the district’s attendance zones.
“Rezoning is one of the hardest things a school district will ever have to do,” said HCISD Chief Communications Officer Tim Savoy, who also leads the rezoning committee. “We ask parents to get connected to their school, to get involved. And then because we’re a fast-growth district we tell them, ‘Well now we have to change the maps.’”
The HCISD board of trustees ultimately approves any rezoning, but the map on which it eventually votes will be designed by a 35-member appointed committee made up of people with a connection to the district.
“We’re not just trying to create a map that’s pretty,” HCISD Superintendent Eric Wright said. “We’re trying to create a map that is going to be meaningful for our students and our community.”
A growing district
Hays County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S., and its largest school district has seen a correlating rise in enrollment. According to a demographic report prepared for HCISD, between the 2012-13 school year and the 2017-18 school year HCISD enrollment grew by 19.9 percent.
That growth is why, according to HCISD, it has tripled the number of campuses since 2000, including adding Lehman High School, the district’s second school for grades 9-12, in 2004. HCISD also has 175 students in grades 10-12 at Live Oak Academy, but because it is an alternative school of choice it is not included in all
Both Lehman and Hays High School are now significantly overcrowded. Built for 2,250 students, this year Lehman’s enrollment exceeds 2,500, and Hays has more than 3,000 students.
Anticipating this kind of growth, in May 2017 HCISD asked voters to approve a $250 million bond, $122 million of which was allocated to build what has since been named Moe and Gene Johnson High School.
Redrawing the maps
The process for redrawing attendance zones in HCISD is well-established, in part because the rapidly growing district has to do it comparatively often. Just a year ago the district convened a committee to redraw elementary school zones in advance of the opening of Uhland Elementary School, and it was only two years earlier that middle school attendance maps had to be redrawn for the addition of McCormick Middle School, which opened in 2016.
Legally the HCISD board of trustees does not need to convene a committee, according to Savoy, but the district believes it is important to involve as many people as possible.
“We have a committee system for major decisions,” Savoy said. “Even when we picked the high school location, we had the same committee process. That’s worked really well for us for a number of years.”
At the Aug. 20 meeting of the HCISD board of trustees, when impaneling the committee was first discussed, several trustees said they expected the process of rezoning for a high school to attract a fair amount of attention.
“I’m already getting a lot of comments about what we’re going to do,” trustee Willie Tenorio said.
In part because the board anticipated a great deal of community interest, when the members voted Aug. 30 to establish the rezoning committee, each trustee was asked to appoint five members, a higher number than they had been allocated in the past.
“It’s one of the largest committees we’ve had,” Savoy said. “It’ll be a challenge to make sure everybody has an opportunity to talk, but it’s good because it allows for more seats at the table.”
“There are so many variables that are involved,” Wright said. “And I think that’s why it’s good to have 35 people with 35 different perspective because collectively, after they analyze all the information, hopefully we’re going to be able to make a really well-informed decision.”
The committee is primarily charged with looking at the high school attendance zones, but is also allowed to consider middle school zones. It is not, however, allowed to reconsider elementary zones.
“The narrower the scope of the committee, the less people I feel like I need to put on it,” trustee Vanessa Petrea said Aug. 20.
The committee and the draft maps
When the committee met for the first time Sept. 27, it was addressed by the president of the HCISD board of trustees, Meredith Keller.
“Hopefully the trustee that appointed you told you that sometimes this gets rough,” Keller said.
Savoy lead them through a presentation on the process and introduced two draft maps.
“There is nothing set in stone; there is nothing decided,” Savoy said.
The draft maps were created by the administration and its demographers ahead of the first meeting and they are, on purpose, imperfect.
“We have a system where we have two maps from the start so we don’t get to pick a favorite,” Savoy said.
One of the main considerations in the rezoning process is whether or not to split middle schools, or to send all students from one middle school to the same high school. Since HCISD has six, the committee could recommend a map that sends two middle schools to each high school.
But socioeconomic balance in the schools is another issue, and it came up early in the process.
“I know there’s a lot of people in the community who are concerned that the new high school is going to be basically the highest-income kids in the whole district,” Tenorio said at the board meeting Aug. 20. “There’s people that want that, and there’s people that don’t want that.”
The economic imbalance already present in the district is reflected in the percentage of economically disadvantaged students at each high school: at Lehman it is 64.3 percent, while at Hays it is 41.6 percent.
Two draft maps were released to the public after the first committee meeting; at the second meeting Oct. 1, the committee chose to revise those maps further before the first public hearing Oct. 16.
“I want to tell people that there is no predetermined map,” Savoy said. “Debate and discussion gets robust, but it’s real. People who are passionate about something on a map, please participate; please email your thoughts in or come to a public forum and be heard.”
Transitioning to Johnson
Johnson High School will open in August 2019 with only freshmen and sophomore classes, which means that while the school will eventually have a similar set of extracurricular activities as Hays and Lehman, not all of them will be offered at Johnson the first year.
Under very limited circumstances, students involved in an activity that Johnson will not offer next year may be allowed to attend a different school.
Parents will also be allowed the chance to have all their children at one school, Savoy said.
The rezoning committee will hold two public hearings in October before convening again to consider feedback. Ideally there will be a recommendation to the committee in November, but Savoy said that there are a number of alternate meetings built in if the committee wants to continue to meet. The board must have a recommendation by December so that students and families can plan for the coming year.
In terms of whether individual people are hoping to go to the new school or hoping to stay where they are, Savoy said, there is a mix within the district.
“A lot of people are excited about the new high school,” he said. “But a lot of people are very connected, and their family has gone to Hays High School for 50 years, so you have half a century of tradition that people don’t want to leave, but the new high school is exciting because people have seen it go up and watched it rise from a foundation.”
For draft maps, supporting documents and a timeline of the process, visit the HCISD rezoning page.