Lockhart ISD is growing faster than expected. Will state funding keep up?
Shelly Herzog grew up in Lockhart. When she went to Lockhart High School from 2000 to 2004, there were barely enough students to fill the cafeteria.
“As a graduate from here, it’s pretty interesting to see how many kids are actually in this building compared to what was here when I was younger,” she said.
Lockhart High School is at about 109% of its capacity, according to district officials. Space is so tight these days that at least seven teachers do not have their own designated classrooms. Herzog is one of them. She uses other teachers’ classrooms when they’re available.
“I’m very thankful for the classrooms I do get to use and the teachers who so willingly accommodate us,” she said. “But it does become a bit of hassle when we want to put up resources around the classroom.”
Herzog primarily teaches education pathway classes that prepare students to eventually become teachers themselves. She said she thinks the school district is doing everything it can to make the situation work and take care of both teachers and students at the overcrowded high school. She does what she can, too.
“I mean I just throw everything in my backpack and pray to God that I made all my copies ahead of time," said Herzog, who is also a coach. "Our teachers are pretty good about helping each other out.”
While Lockhart ISD officials expected the student population to grow by 2.5% during the 2022-2023 school year, it has actually grown by 5%.
Demographer Brent Alexander, with School District Strategies, helps Lockhart ISD anticipate how much the student population will increase each year. He said the Dallas-based firm went with a more conservative estimate because enrollment leveled off during the pandemic. But, this year broke the mold.
“Some of that is kids coming back into the district from withdrawing during the pandemic, but it’s also new growth,” he said. “They have experienced growth all over the district geographically.”
The 5% increase in enrollment translates to about 300 more students. Alexander said that's a record. The previous record was about 280 additional students from 2015 to 2016, he said.
Many of the new students are coming from the Austin area, according to Lockhart ISD Superintendent Mark Estrada.
“The majority this year came from schools within [the] Austin Independent School District — about 100 students. But they come from Hays, Del Valle, Bastrop, really the south and southeast part of the Austin area,” he said.
The rapid growth has put many of the district’s campuses — not just the high school — at or over capacity. The need to address that was the focus of a $71 million bond Lockhart ISD voters approved in November. It gave the district the green light to borrow money to buy land for and build a sixth elementary school. The bond dollars will also be used for an addition to the high school that can accommodate 500 students.
While this will not alleviate all the capacity issues Lockhart ISD is facing, Estrada is thankful voters approved the bond.
“We’re certainly pleased that this first phase was supported by our community to allow us to begin to address the growth that we’re seeing,” he said.
Lockhart ISD expects to have two more bonds on the ballot before 2028 to deal with additional growth. If voters approve those in the years ahead, the district could borrow money to build more elementary schools, a second middle school and another addition to the high school.
Attendance vs. enrollment
The rapid increase in student population doesn’t just mean schools are more crowded; it also means the district needs to hire more people. But, Superintendent Estrada said Lockhart is facing the same staffing challenges other school districts face in the area.
“The cost of living in Central Texas is much higher than other places across the state, but our teacher compensation is similar,” he said. “So it creates a challenge to recruit anyone from outside of the area.”
Lockhart ISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Dean said hiring was especially challenging this year and the unexpected influx of students added another wrinkle.
“I’ve worked in other fast-growing districts where we do have more students in the fall than we thought we would, and we could just hire teachers for that growth,” she said. “And we weren’t able to do that this year.”
It might only get harder for the district to find teachers because of the way Texas funds public schools. The state uses an attendance-based model, so districts lose money when students don’t show up to class. Estrada said that means even though Lockhart ISD has hundreds of new students, whether it gets more state money to hire additional staff depends on attendance.
For example, Estrada said, the district has to make sure there are enough teachers to educate 6,500 students but on any given day only 6,100 might show up.
“That doesn’t mean that we get to send all those teachers home who are missing kids; we have to fund as though every student shows up," he said.
Estrada said this is a major concern because attendance has gotten spottier in the wake of the pandemic.
“That is creating a real challenge to schools across the state as we navigate getting people back to going to in-person school every day,” he said. “That, I think, is a challenge that is not unique to Lockhart.”
Texas is one of just six states in the U.S. that fund schools based on attendance, according to the director of policy and advocacy at Every Texan, a left-leaning think tank based in Austin. Chandra Villanueva said many students go unaccounted for in this system.
"Districts that are experiencing growth are going to see some really tight budgets, especially if we keep using this really archaic method of attendance-based funding."Chandra Villanueva, director of of policy and advocacy at Every Texan
“Over 300,000 students on average are not counted at all in our Texas school finance system. And this really became a bigger issue during the pandemic when attendance rates declined,” she said.
Tying school funding to attendance is especially challenging for fast-growing districts like Lockhart ISD, Villanueva said.
“Districts that are experiencing growth are going to see some really tight budgets, especially if we keep using this really archaic method of attendance-based funding,” she said.
Villanueva thinks Texas is hanging onto this model because of an “outdated idea” that schools won’t care whether students show up if funding isn’t tied to attendance.
“But studies have shown that there’s really no difference in attendance rates between states that use attendance-based funding versus enrollment-based funding,” she said. “What kids really need is supportive environments, teachers who care about them and keep them engaged in the classroom.”
Switching to enrollment-based funding would likely be more expensive for Texas. Villanueva said California, which also uses an attendance-based system, estimates it would cost roughly $3.4 billion per year to switch. She said that figure would be comparable for Texas, but the state could afford it. She points to the $27 billion budget surplus Texas lawmakers will have to work with during the 2023 legislative session.
“I feel like one of [lawmakers'] first priorities should be moving to enrollment-based funding,” she said.
And, there are lawmakers proposing a switch.
Several Democratic lawmakers in the Texas House have filed bills ahead of the legislative session that seek to fund public schools based on average enrollment rather than average daily attendance. Two are from the Austin area: state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, who filed House Bill 31 and state Rep. John Bucy, who filed House Bill 348. Hinojosa authored a similar bill in 2021 that didn't go anywhere.
Villanueva hopes these types of bills will gain more traction during the upcoming session.
“Moving to enrollment-based funding will put more money into our schools and more accurately reflect what our schools are trying to accomplish and the number of students that they’re trying to educate,” she said. “It will allow pay raises for teachers and potentially the hiring of more teachers.”