As the district continues to focus on our vision of inspiring and equipping students to be life-long learners and positive contributors to the world, district leaders often are asked questions about the operations of the district or hear statements that may include inaccurate information. “Fact Checker” will take topics that have surfaced in community conversations and use a Q&A format to provide accurate, factual information as well as background if appropriate, and link to any related resources on the district website.
Q: Why is there a difference between the approved budget and final budget?
A: Each spring the DSISD Finance and Operations Department develops the budget for the next fiscal year, based on projections of enrollment, appraised property values, and state funding (including recapture). Many of these variables are estimates based on data that is available at the time. In general, the district uses a relatively conservative approach when estimating these variables to ensure that more funds are not committed that what will be available. For instance, enrollment projections have a range from low growth to moderate growth to high growth. We typically use the low to moderate numbers when building a budget. Because a key piece of state funding formulas is student enrollment (district get funding per student), a higher-than-anticipated enrollment can result in more funding. Certified property values are received in July, but DSISD must adopt a budget in June, which again means we must rely on the best data and projections we have.
DSISD also has some guidelines in place to ensure fiscally responsible budgeting. The adopted budget cannot have more than a 2 percent deficit and the district must maintain at least four months of operating expenditures in the fund balance. The fund balance is important to school districts because tax collections are not received all at one time; the district must continue to pay its expenditures during the collection period and sometimes may need to temporarily dip into reserves.
Most years, the actual final revenues vs. expenditures is a surplus, even if the original budget using conservative projections showed a slight (less than 2 percent) deficit. Any surplus is transferred into fund balance, which by DSISD policy must equal four months of expenditures. It is relevant to note that, as the district grows and its annual budget increases, the required fund balance also increases.
Q: Why did the district switch to the Canvas software?
A: Dripping Springs ISD, its schools, and classrooms use a variety of tools to provide dynamic classroom instruction and monitor student progress. An important component of providing a personal and exceptional education to all students was identification of a product that had the ability to create learner profiles. Canvas is a Learning Management System (LMS) that has a tool to create these profiles, which will assist our teachers in providing a personal learning experience while helping students become more aware of how they learn. Teachers can access digital resources such as interactive learning modules, class calendars, assignment and grading notifications, and collaboration tools. Once fully implemented, learner profiles will include information on a student’s strengths, interests, abilities, cognitive and content progression, social and emotional traits, class schedule, and academic pathways. An additional benefit for students is that products like Canvas are widely used by many colleges and universities, providing our students with another tool to make the transition to higher education easier. The Canvas webpage includes tutorials for parents and students.
Q: The Board approved a contract to purchase land in Headwaters neighborhood. How did that come about and what is the status of the purchase?
A: The 2018 bond program included $9 million for land acquisition. As stated during bond informational presentations that occurred in spring 2018, a targeted area where the district was seeking land was north of Highway 290 between RR12 and Sawyer Ranch Road. Identifying potential parcels of land is an ongoing process for DSISD. Once this available property was identified and assessed, the negotiation process and development of the contract took many months to complete. The Board gave approval for the contract to move forward at the August 19, 2019, meeting. During a 120-day inspection period, several steps (environmental assessment, historical/archeological assessment, detailed topographical survey, etc.) will occur to confirm suitability of the land for the district’s intended purpose. At the conclusion of the inspection period, if it is determined that the site fully meets the needs of the district, the next step would be to plan to close on the property. The contract allows for a closing date as late as December 2020, but it likely will not take that long to complete the process. This land parcel is large enough to accommodate an elementary school and a middle school, and it is not yet certain what year these would be built, as funding will be dependent on future bond programs.
Q: How was it determined to place the district’s fifth elementary school on Darden Hill Road and what is the timeframe for this project?
A: Funding for a fifth elementary school was included in the 2018 bond package. The target date for opening the fifth elementary school is August of 2021. At that point, the cumulative DSISD elementary population is projected to be at approximately 115 percent of current capacity. DSISD owns two properties: 155 acres on Darden Hill Road just southeast of the intersection with Sawyer Ranch Road that the district has owned for nearly a decade and 24 acres at the northwest corner of RR12 and Mt. Gainor Road that the district purchased in 2016. After receiving the most recent demographic report in the spring of 2019, it was clear that the eastern part of the district is most in need of relief (additional capacity) at the elementary level. The Darden Hill property is large enough to potentially accommodate an elementary school, middle school and eventually a high school if the community decides to move towards a multiple-high school model. The district also is in the process of purchasing land in Headwaters (see previous question), but is not expected to close on that property until 2020.
A feasibility study has been completed to see how the 155 acres on Darden Hill could be used to accommodate future facilities, starting with Elementary #5. Input gathered on preferred elementary design features through various means will be used in the design process, and the involvement of a recently formed Design Input Committee will provide direct input. The design process will last through the fall, then the construction documents phase will occur. A construction contractor previously was selected by the district (Bartlett Cocke General Contractors) and construction is anticipated to begin in the late spring. During this time, the district also will be working with the county to plan for road enhancements.
Q: Has DSISD considered a citizen advisory committee to work with the Board and the district as the construction projects associated with the 2018 bond are implemented?
A: Yes. The Board approved guidelines for a Bond Advisory Committee at the October regular Board meeting. The guidelines are for a group consisting of community members who will get updates and information regarding project progress, change orders, and expenditures from the district’s facilities team, project manager, and architect. The committee will advise the Board of Trustees on these issues through periodic reports. Applications for the committee were made available in mid-December and publicized through parent emails, the DSISD website, social media and local newspapers. The nine members (and two alternates) will be appointed by the Board following a formal application process and review. Every applicant will be given careful consideration based on factors such as professional expertise, previous volunteer service on district facility-related committees, and geographic location (residence).
Q: Has DSISD made any decisions about when a future bond program will be held or what would be included in it?
A: No. Based on enrollment projections, we can identify when relief will be needed at various grade levels, but no decisions have been made about proposed facilities that may be included, the size/dollar amount that a bond package could be, or when a bond election would be held. The district is ramping up the long-range planning process and the committee started meeting in November, 2019. All meetings will be open to the community so anyone can attend. A number of decisions will impact the timing and composition of a future bond package. One of the most critical decisions would be what the community would like regarding the future of high school(s) in the district. A facility planning process also considers information about a district’s capacity regarding the issuance of bonds. The state of Texas sets limits on how high the tax rate can be when considering the amount of debt incurred by a school district, which can come into play when discussing what facilities should be potentially included in a bond package. The district will continue to post information about the facility planning process.
Q: When will attendance zones be determined for the new elementary school?
A: When a new school is slated to open, the district intentionally waits until the semester prior to the opening to determine and announce new boundaries so that the most accurate and current data can be used. Redrawing attendance zones is never an easy task, but we involve community input throughout the decision-making process and offer multiple options for discussion. In working with our demographers to determine where new schools are built, the demographer offers planning maps, often with sample zones or “catchment areas” carved out. These maps are designed for the district to get an idea of how our enrollment numbers might fall and they (or updated versions) can be used when the time comes to begin attendance zone discussions and develop options for consideration. In our district, because of our population distribution and the location of schools, all families cannot attend the school that is closest to their home. The great news is that all four (and soon to be five!) DSISD elementary schools and both middle schools offer outstanding educational opportunities.
Q: How often are stadium lights used at the district’s three secondary schools and are they turned off when not in use?
A: Our outdoor facilities are used most weekdays and some Saturdays as playing fields are very much in demand in Dripping Springs. A majority of the schedule consists of DSISD team practices and games, but as a good community partner the district also rents facilities to local groups and teams. We limit the rental facilities to one outdoor field at each of three locations: the DSHS track field, and the football fields at both Sycamore Springs Middle School and Dripping Springs Middle School. While it seems like there should only be one sport in season at a time, in fact each sport generally consists of multiple teams. For instance, high school football has a varsity team, two junior varsity teams, and two freshman teams. Seasons also overlap. DSISD facility staff is diligent about scheduling the times that lights come on and off. In fact, the district uses a software application that allows the light schedule to be changed remotely from a laptop or device. This is helpful if a practice is canceled or ends early; those using the field are asked to immediately text or call a facility staff member so the lights can be turned off. Of course this system is not perfect as human error can come into play, but most coaches (and rental contacts) follow this practice. The fall time change also results in lights being needed at an earlier hour.
Q: How does DSISD communicate with parents in the event of an emergency, time-sensitive or safety-related incident?
A: DSISD uses the emergency notification system through Blackboard Communications for emergency and time-sensitive notifications, including school closures or delays. DSISD can send a message district-wide or can send to staff and/or parent groups from specific campuses. This system allows parents to set preferences including e-mail, phone calls, texts, or alerts through the DSISD mobile app. In addition, parents may set notifications for multiple phone numbers: home, cell and/or work. Selecting notification preferences is one step in the annual enrollment verification process that is completed online for all students. Preferences can be changed at any time by logging into Blackboard.
Please note that when an incident is initially brought to the attention of district personnel, it may take a short time to gather and verify information to ensure accuracy. In addition, if other agencies are involved, DSISD coordinates with them (for example, Hays County Sheriff’s Office or North Hays Fire/Rescue) to develop accurate and consistent messaging. Once the message is programmed into Blackboard, it will reach its intended audience quickly.
Q: Do DSISD employees receive compensation for unused leave when they retire from the district? Is the amount comparable to other school districts?
A: Yes, when employees retire from DSISD they receive compensation for any unused local leave days they have accumulated. Many area districts do not provide compensation to retiring employees for unused leave (such as the Austin, Lake Travis, and Leander school districts). For those districts that do follow this practice, the guidelines vary. Some require employees to work a certain number of years of employment before being eligible. Others limit the number of days that can be paid out. DSISD does not place restrictions on years of service or total number of days that can be paid out. Upon retirement, DSISD exempt employees receive $50 per day for unused local leave and non-exempt employees receive $30. A review of the daily rate that many Central Texas districts pay retiring employees for unused leave identified a range between $10 per day and $100 per day for unused leave. School district employees also get state leave days, which can transfer to other districts; DSISD does not pay employees for unused state leave.
Q: Why is the superintendent search conducted as part of closed session Board meetings?
A: Most search processes at the superintendent level – including the review and interviewing of applicants -- are done in closed session of the Board, as permitted by Texas statute (Texas Govt. Code 551.074). In order to gain the interest of superintendents who are successful and happy in their current positions (likely the most desirable candidates), a closed process assures them that their candidacy will not create uncertainty in their current communities. In short, a closed process typically generates a stronger candidate pool. Our district is fortunate that our superintendent position attracted a large pool of candidates (77) and our Board has worked diligently to narrow the field to the best candidates based on the input received by the community at the onset of the search.