Katy ISD is one of 85 Texas school districts designated as a fast-growth district by the Fast Growth School Coalition in Austin. Demographic firm Population and Survey Analysts projects that KISD’s enrollment will grow by more than 2,000 students a year over the next two decades. KISD will be faced with ensuring that the facilities, staff and services are in place to serve these students.
FGSC Executive Director Michelle Smith said 80 percent of the 80,000 new students moving to Texas each year end up in fewer than 10 percent of the state’s districts. These are the destination districts, she said.
“People move to fast-growth districts because a lot of times those are really high-performing schools,” Smith said. “They’re places people want to be when they move to Texas. They have libraries and parks and things people want as far as their everyday lives are concerned.”
However, KISD Superintendent Alton Frailey said because education funding in Texas is limited at the state level, the district must strategically plan for growth in its student population and determine how to pay for new facilities, teachers and supplies while keeping the budget balanced without raising taxes.
Districts that are designated as fast-growth by FGSC can join the coalition, a grassroots organization that works to disseminate information on and obtain increased state funding and support for fast-growing districts. KISD has opted to join FGSC.
“The main thing folks should understand is that the state of Texas is a low tax state because [the Legislature does not] spend money. The costs are passed on to the local school districts,” Frailey said.
Building new schools
One-third of KISD’s campuses have opened in the past decade due to the influx of new residents to the Katy area.
The district, however, has been anticipating this growth, Frailey said. KISD works with demographers to regularly revise a rolling 10-year master plan for facilities construction. The plan helps the district determine when and where schools will be needed.
“We work with demographers to look at growth trends in the district,” Frailey said. “We try to purchase land in advance in those areas so we can already have that in place. The sooner we can buy the land, the cheaper we can get it for.”
Identifying the need for a new campus is only one factor in the ultimate decision to proceed with constructing a school.
The funds to build a school and the funds to staff it come from separate funds. While it may make fiscal sense for the district to build a campus, the district may not be in a financial position to actually get the school up and running, Frailey said.
“There are districts that have the funds to build a school but don’t have the funds to operate it,” he said. “There are schools that have been built, but [these districts] can’t afford to staff them.”
Once builders break ground on a school, it takes 14 months on average to construct an elementary school, 18 months to construct a junior high school and 28 months to construct a high school, Frailey said.
Because the process of building new schools does not always keep pace with district’s population growth, the district has other measures in place to respond to its growth.
“You can build a neighborhood faster than you can build a school,” Frailey said. “That’s why you have other strategies in place.”
Adjusting attendance boundaries is one way the district has coped with the increasing student population. Frailey said KISD has made it a priority to make sure all of its campuses have high-quality instruction.
“You have to make certain that you have quality instructional practices across the district, period,” he said. “So when you do have to do things, such as adjust attendance boundaries, students are still getting the same quality of education across the board.”
To that end, the KISD board voted this summer to raise teacher salaries, particularly for teachers who have been with the district for several years.
“We really wanted to try to reward the teachers who’ve been with us beyond five years,” Frailey said.
Auxiliary staff, such as bus drivers, received pay raises as well. Frailey said the district hopes the pay raise will help retain current staff, while attracting new staff that will be needed.
Because health insurance costs are rising, KISD is devoting a larger portion of its budget to employee health care costs, so premiums do not rise.
In addition to working to recruit and maintain high-quality instructors and staff, Frailey said the district constantly examines how facilities are being used.
“You evaluate programs because each program takes up space so you sometimes have to move them from one site to another site to free up classroom space,” he said. “You want to make certain that you utilize facilities as efficiently as possible.”
Paying for growth
In many cases, Smith said fast-growing districts struggle to raise the funds to accommodate all of their new students without also raising property taxes again and again.
“Districts like Katy ISD that are growing at really significant rates, they need the state to bring in more assistance,” she said. “The state is decreasing the amount of support they’re providing for local communities, and the local communities are having to pick up the tab.”
Smith said that FGSC has several priorities for the upcoming 2015 legislative session. The coalition hopes to see funding restored for the New Instructional Facilities allotment, which was cut in 2011. The allotment provided new schools with $250 per student, which helped new campuses cover the costs of supplies like desks and books.
FGSC is also in favor of increasing the Existing Debt Allotment, which essentially buys down property taxes for rapidly growing districts, Smith said.
State Rep. John Zerwas said the ongoing education finance lawsuit in Texas makes funding public education complicated. However, Zerwas said, he is confident the Legislature will be able to adequately fund education next session.
“We know it’s an obligation we have, and it’s the best investment of money that we can do to make sure our children get a good start on their education,” he said.
So far, KISD has benefited from rising property values, Frailey said. New homes are frequently high-value, while existing home values are rising when reappraised. This allows the district to receive more revenue from property taxes without the tax rate going up.
Fast-growing districts that receive the vast majority of their property tax revenue from residential rather than commercial property can face additional hurdles in raising enough property tax to accommodate new students, Smith said.
KISD, however, receives taxes from commercial properties as well, from mom and pop businesses to international corporations.
“Folks want to be here because we have a highly educated community and Katy ISD is the No. 1 attraction once they come to Texas,” Frailey said.
“The growth is great on one hand, but it does create challenges.”
Source: Community Impact News