Student enrollment at Humble ISD is projected to increase by more than 10,000 students in the next six to 10 years, prompting district officials to make plans for building new campuses.
Six new campuses are needed in HISD by 2022—three elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school—primarily in the southeast quadrant of the district near Atascocita, HISD Superintendent Guy Sconzo said.
“My first year here was in 2001, and there has not been a year since that we haven’t grown,” Sconzo said. “Accelerated would be an understatement. It was like an explosion occurred, and it lasted through the [Great Recession]. For the past couple of years our growth has been around 1,200 to 1,300 students per year, and it’s starting to pick up again.”
‘The last frontier’
HISD’s population is expected to rise from 40,500 to about 52,000 students by 2025, according to a study by demographic firm Population & Survey Analysts. Residents are moving to the area to take advantage of access to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, undeveloped land and jobs in downtown Houston or the Port of Houston, Sconzo said.
“I’ve heard [Northeast Houston] referred to as the last frontier in Houston,” he said. “It’s a very attractive quadrant of the city.”
However, the projected influx of new students does require district officials to stay on their toes. HISD board President Robert Sitton said there are already temporary buildings and overcrowding problems at several campuses in the district.
“If we don’t build another high school, specifically in the Atascocita area, then Atascocita High School and Summer Creek High School will have 4,500 students [each] when they’re built for 3,200 students,” he said.
Much of the future growth is expected to take place along West Lake Houston Parkway between Beltway 8 and Will Clayton Parkway, where several of the campuses will be built, Sconzo said.
High School No. 7, projected to open in 2022, will be built on the border of the Lakeshore community off West Lake Houston Parkway. Two other campuses—Elementary No. 28 and Middle School No. 9—will be built nearby in The Groves, a master-planned community near West Lake Houston and Madera Run parkways. The schools will open in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
“We’ve heard from the market researchers who are saying the east side of town is the new west side,” said Nicole Zimmerman, project manager for Crescent Communities, the development company that built The Groves. “I don’t know if I’d go that far, but with changing market dynamics and the price of oil going down, the northeast side [of Houston] is poised for a lot of growth.”
Financing new schools
Before the district’s board of trustees calls for another bond election, it has $155 million in authorized bond funds from an election in 2008 to purchase property for the six new campuses, build three schools and have money remaining toward the construction of a fourth school, Sconzo said.
Beginning in August 2017, one new school is slated to open each fall for six years, pending a future bond election that needs to be called by the board. Legally, a district cannot start that process until there is money in the bank, Sconzo said.
“We have to have a successful bond referendum in 2018 in order to open the doors on Elementary 30 in 2021 and High School 7 in 2022,” he said. “I say that definitively, but the board will make the ultimate decision, and the community.”
The future bond referendum is also expected to address aging facilities.
“This year we hired PBK Architects to do a full facility study from the rooftops to the flowerbeds of every facility in our district,” Sitton said. “We’ve asked them to give us a playbook for the future to see if we need to do any renovations on schools, wing additions or possible rebuilds because we know we have some aging facilities. That’s going to be a huge part of the next bond election.”
After new schools are constructed, the additional operating costs put more strain on the district’s annual budget. Start-up operating costs for new campuses are roughly $1.7 million for a new elementary school, $3 million for a new middle school and $7 million for a new high school, Sconzo said.
“The operating cost of new facilities, on top of the ever-escalating cost of building facilities, really causes financial challenges for school districts primarily because of the way the funding system is established in this state,” he said.
More than 600 school districts in Texas, including HISD, joined a school finance lawsuit in 2012 in hopes the system would be overturned and ruled inequitable and inadequate.
“[Sheldon ISD is] funded at a level approximately $1,500 more per student per year,” Sconzo said. “Tell me what’s the difference between educating a child in Sheldon and Humble?’”
If the state Supreme Court rules in favor of the districts, the state legislature will be charged with fixing the school finance system, said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the research and advocacy nonprofit Texas Equity Center. A decision is imminent.
“There are several things [in the finance system] that aren’t cost-based and deliver money at whim and mostly favors wealthier districts,” Pierce said. “In Harris County, there are two districts at the maximum tax rate of $1.17: Humble ISD and Sheldon ISD. If Humble ISD were funded at the same level Sheldon is, they would have $18 million [more].”
Regardless of financial challenges, district officials plan to diligently execute future campus openings, Sconzo said, with campuses needing to be at 140 percent capacity before another opens.
“If you open a new campus earlier than that, you open the new campus with such a small student population, it really is inefficient,” he said. “As you respond to growth, what’s really important is who are the teachers working with the children.”