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: How have factors related to COVID-19 impacted our budget?
A: When formulating the fiscal year 2019-2020 budget, COVID-19 and its impact on our world was unknown. As such, many substantial expenses were not in last year’s budget, such as distance learning, expanded learning, and technology needs. We also lost revenue in areas like PreK tuition and child care, as we did not provide those services in-person after Spring Break. Fortunately, because schools were closed during the pandemic's initial phase, they provided a buffer on the expenditure side (utilities, for example), which helped reduce the overall consequences last year. In the 2020-21 year, we have seen increased costs related to the COVID expenditures listed above that were unbudgeted. We also have incurred significant unbudgeted costs related to ensuring students' and staff's health and safety when returning to campus. We will submit any expenses that qualify under the federal CARES Act for reimbursement. However, we likely will need to use some fund balance to cover these overages. Our district is fortunate to have a fund balance that can absorb any unseen anomalies in the short term, but the long-term effect of the pandemic would be detrimental in several areas.
Q: If recapture payments to the state are calculated based on property tax revenue compared to student enrollment, would the district be able to just lower tax rates and keep more of its revenue?
A: The district makes budget assumptions that determine the tax rate assessed, but the Texas Education Agency (TEA) also does a tax rate calculation. TEA compares each tax rate throughout the fiscal year; if there is a large disparity in tax rate calculation, the district could receive a negative hit on its Financial Accountability Rating. Good practice among districts is to use the most current information available and come as close to the state tax rate as possible during the budget process.
DSISD takes a very conservative approach when setting the tax rate during budget adoption. Still, each year there is a settle-up process with TEA, as actual property taxes and actual student attendance become known with a greater degree of certainty. The settle-up could result in the district receiving additional local or state funds, or owing the state additional local funds. If we arbitrarily lowered our tax rate, it would reduce local revenue projections, directly affecting our expenditure projections for that fiscal year budget adoption. We try to use the best historical data and current projected information (i.e., local property tax growth, average daily attendance, student enrollment) to find the proper balance. In the end, our district is potentially receiving a minimal amount of funds at settle-up.
Q: How does DSISD’s debt compare to other districts statewide?
A: Debt varies each year, depending mostly on where the district stands related to payment schedules for previous bond programs. Districts with growing student enrollments that are building new schools are inclined to have higher debt. The most recent statewide data is available for 2018, at which time DSISD was in the 80th percentile in I&S Tax Rate ($0.35), and the 89th percentile in both Total Debt ($179,094,999) and Debt per Student ($27,757), and the 64th percentile in Voted Tax Debt to Assessed Valuation* (4.07%). Meanwhile, DSISD’s five-year enrollment growth rate is in the 95th percentile in Texas.
When comparing DSISD to 30 other fast-growth districts, DSISD ranked 19th highest (out of 30) in both I&S Tax Rate and Debt per Student. The district also had the 14-highest (out of 30) Total Debt and the 22nd highest (out of 30) Voted Tax Debt to Assessed Valuation* when compared to districts experiencing similar levels of growth. (The 30 fast-growth districts in this comparison were defined as “districts with the largest five-year growth rate with more than 2,000 students in 2018.”)
While DSISD’s Debt-per-Student figure is available for 2019 ($39,890), state data is not yet available to be used for comparison. DSISD’s 2018 bond proposition was one of 136 approved by voters across the state in the past two years (2018 and 2019).
*Voted Tax Debt to Assessed Valuation=debt as a percentage of total assessed property value in the district
SUPERINTENDENT SEARCH PROCESS
Q: What is the process for hiring a superintendent?
A: Hiring the superintendent of a school district is a responsibility that falls on the local Board of Trustees, elected officials who serve in a role to represent the community. Following collection of community input to develop a desired candidate profile, the board reviewed applications for the position and determined candidates to interview. The board conducted interviews, and narrowed the field to a lone finalist, which was announced as Dr. Holly Morris-Kuentz on April 13. Texas law requires school districts to release the name of a lone finalist 21 days before the meeting in which the board will take a final vote on employment.
Q: Why is the superintendent search conducted as part of closed session Board meetings?
A: As is the case with most search processes at the superintendent level, the DSISD Board of Trustees conducted the search process – including review and interviewing of applicants – in closed sessions of the Board, as permitted by Texas statute (Texas Govt. Code 551.074). This approach was recommended by JG Consulting, the Austin-based education leadership search firm assisting the Board with the process. A closed process typically generates a stronger candidate pool, since many applicants need to maintain privacy and not create uncertainty in their current communities.
Q: How were the new attendance zones determined? NEW
A: Organization for this process started in fall of 2020 as the Board of Trustees approved parameters and a timeline, and an administrative attendance zone committee formed. The committee worked with the district’s demographer to develop starter options for boundaries. Community input was collected through a Thought Exchange, two Google surveys, and comments shared at three public forums. Starter options were adjusted based on community feedback and additional options were introduced. Eventually on March 22, Elementary “Option E” and Middle School “Option 1” were recommended to the board, and trustees asked if the committee had reviewed all possible scenarios to avoid splitting elementary campuses. The committee made three adjustments to create Elementary Option E-1 and Middle School Option 1-A; these modified versions were approved.
Q: What benefits did the new attendance zones capture? NEW
A: The approved attendance zones mets the most board-approved parameters to the greatest extent possible, provided capacity relief for SSE and DSE, avoided splitting up any elementary school into two different middle schools, provided a closer elementary school and middle school location for many students, maintains all Sycamore Springs Elementary students matriculating to SSMS, avoided moving any student to a school that is farther away from his/her current assignment, created fewer changes for students over time by avoiding multiple moves of students likely to be impacted when Elementary School 6 and Middle School 3 are built, maximized the use of SSMSas the middle school that is geographically desirable for many students, avoided breaking up Sunset Canyon neighborhood, created a plan for flexible building use in future years with extra space expected to be available in DSMS (shared collaborative classrooms) if needed by WSE and extra classroom space available in SSE if needed by SSMS, minimized the need for staffing changes, eliminated any immediate need for portable buildings, and aligned well with public input.
Q: Why was the unpaved area at the south end of the Sycamore Springs campus gated off?
A: The district had received recommendations from county law enforcement regarding the risk to safety that was created when this dirt, unpaved area was used as an unofficial parking lot. Law enforcement officials advised that vehicles pulling out of that area was unsafe, as it is directly next to the official school exit. As we are committed to doing everything we can to protect the safety of our students and families, the gate to the unpaved area was closed in late December, 2020. We will continue to have the ability to open the area for special events when an unusually high number of vehicles is expected on campus, and can potentially arrange for traffic to be directed.
Q: Did the district consider halting construction projects when the pandemic hit?
A: The decision of the voters in approving the 2018 bond program in effect created a pact with the community for the district to complete the projects that were included in the bond package. When the pandemic emerged, DSISD construction projects were well in progress. The high school project was within five months of completion. The other school construction projects were more than halfway through a three-year design/construction schedule and sitework was starting. In the case of the DSMS/WSE project, the wastewater line work was in progress. It is important to consider that a) DSISD does in fact expect enrollment to continue to grow, and b) the bonds were sold in 2018, contracts were in place, and payments had been made to several entities (architects, contractors, etc.). Additionally, bond project budgets are based on completing the projects according to an anticipated schedule; delaying construction would have resulted in higher construction costs.
Q: What are the benefits of building a new Walnut Springs Elementary near Dripping Springs Middle School?
A: The relocation of Walnut Springs Elementary will create an updated learning facility for the WSE school community located adjacent to DSMS, which will provide greater access to academic programming, and resolve a need for expanded employee child care facilities and district support services and programs.
The current Administration Building, which was constructed in 1948, is at the end of its life cycle. In 2017, a facility assessment report identified significant issues with internal and external building components, including roofing, walls, windows, HVAC, electrical, and plumbing. The study assigned the Administration Building a Facility Condition Index (FCI) score of 80% (an FCI of 50% or higher is considered poor condition). FCI is an industry-standard measure to compare the condition of building conditions. The current building also is at capacity in terms of space. Rather than directing funds to construct a new administrative building, by repurposing a school at a much lower cost, the district can focus resources on instructional facilities rather than offices by repurposing the WSE campus to a new administration building.
Walnut Springs Elementary students, families, and staff will get a building designed for a 21st Century learning environment. This relocation represents another elementary/middle school pair, which creates opportunities for collaboration, mentoring, and elementary students to accelerate in certain subject areas without requiring transportation. The current WSE campus is getting “squeezed” in terms of space as the adjacent residential neighborhood builds out, and the lots in front of the school become commercial properties. FOr the past several years, Dripping Springs ISD has partnered with the City of Dripping Springs, Hays County, and the Dripping Springs Library to work towards creation of a Town Center that would be located adjacent to the campus as well. The district administrative offices would be a natural fit with other public services at this location.
The additional space at the repurposed Administration Building will allow for support services to grow as the district grows. In addition to office space, this repurposed building will serve as a district and community hub. The child care center will double in size to accommodate additional children of staff and DSISD will have appropriate space for professional learning and staff training activities, community education programs, and expansion of support services in all areas. For more on the benefits that this facility will provide to the district’s staff and students, see this fact sheet.
Q: What renovations will take place at DSMS? Did this change during the planning process?
A: Dripping Springs Middle School will receive a number of upgrades and improvements as part of this project. Some highlights include: renovated classroom areas for Functional Academics, new collaborative spaces for students, renovated/enlarged teacher lounge and collaboration space, several outdoor improvements in courtyard areas including a shared amphitheater, upgraded lighting in gyms and cafeteria, replacement of portions of the HVAC system, new HVAC and lighting controls, new monument sign, and several electrical/plumbing upgrades. To minimize disruption, most of the renovations will take place during the summer months. During the planning process, input was gathered from DSMS staff that led to a few expanded projects, such as the teacher workroom/lounge and courtyard.
Q: Is Dripping Springs Middle School capacity being reduced?
A: Originally, there was discussion of connecting the two schools in a way that would have resulted in the loss of approximately 10 classrooms in DSMS for use as elementary classrooms, but the final plans will only have a minimal impact on middle school capacity. A total of six classrooms are being converted to create new collaboration spaces, and four of them in the upper A wing will be specifically for the middle school use; two classrooms in the DSMS B wing (near the connection with the new Walnut Springs) will be a shared collaboration space for the middle school and elementary school. Capacity at DSMS will be approximately 1,200 students.
Q: How does our projected construction costs of Elementary #5 and the new Walnut Springs Elementary compare to the industry average?
A: Our two elementary projects will cost between $280-$290 per square foot. Based on our research of other current projects in Central Texas and information that is available from our contractors, elementary school buildings are ranging from around $275 to $325 per square foot at this time. Every project is unique, and many variables impact total construction cost. For instance, site costs can vary greatly depending on topography and access to utilities. Flat property with readily available utilities will result in lower site costs, while land with varied topography and/or lack of nearby utilities will result in higher costs. Elementary #5's costs are affected by topography, utilities, and longer access drives based on the location near the back of the property; however, we have been able to keep the total construction costs to right at $290/square foot.
Q: Is there a citizen advisory committee that works 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 in October of 2019. According to approved guidelines, the group consists of community members who get updates and information regarding project progress, change orders, and expenditures from the district’s facilities team, project manager, and architect. The nine members (and two alternates) were appointed by the Board following a formal application process and review. The committee was appointed and started meeting in April 2020; it will advise the Board of Trustees on these issues through periodic reports. This webpage provides updates on the BAC.
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. During the fall of 2020, the district's demographer (Population and Survey Analysts) is working on a demographic update. The district's Long-Range Facility Planning Committee met several times during the 2019-20 school year and held productive conversations regarding future planning. All meetings were open to the community, then the last two were livestreamed after the switch to a remote format. 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: 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.