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GROWING PAINS: School districts prepare for increasing populations

Gregg Ranch in Marble Falls

Developments such as Gregg Ranch in Marble Falls, which has plans for 1,250 family units, will strain local school districts' capacities for growth. Planning for increased student populations is already underway. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Housing developments both large and small in the Highland Lakes are driving a population increase that is already having a direct impact on the two largest school districts in the area.

“I know a lot of attention is on the (U.S.) 281 and (Texas) 71 area, and along those roads, but we cover 268 square-miles and we have to pay attention to all of it,” said Chris Allen, superintendent of the Marble Falls Independent School District. 

Currently, MFISD enrollment is about 4,300 students.

About 3,200 students attend classes in the Burnet Consolidated Independent School District, which covers more than 700 square-miles.

“We’ve entered into an agreement with a demographer, so we’ll be doing a demographic study every year and get an update once or twice a year,” said BCISD Superintendent Keith McBurnett. “It’s not whether the growth comes but how quickly.”

Both MFISD and BCISD only need look east down Texas 29 in the north and Texas 71 in the south to see how growth is affecting neighboring districts and get a sense of what is on the way. 

Between 2014 and 2019 — a five-year period — Liberty Hill ISD saw an increase of 1,600 students. In just the past 12 months, student enrollment there jumped by 1,400 students. The district currently has 5,700 students, but officials expect it to top 14,000 by the end of the next five years. To prepare for that increase, Liberty Hill voters in the spring approved a bond package of about $491 million. 

Lake Travis ISD, the immediate eastward neighbor of MFISD, saw student enrollment increase by 2,250 over the five-year period from 2014 to 2019. From 2019 to the present, enrollment grew by 317 students, fewer than originally expected. The district attributed it to the COVID-19 pandemic. Growth in previous years led trustees and voters to approve a $253 million bond in 2017 to build a new middle school and a new elementary school. The district population is currently 11,072 students. 

Growth in student enrollments in BCISD and MFISD is not near that of Liberty Hill and more in line with Lake Travis. In fact, both Marble Falls and Burnet saw student numbers drop slightly during the pandemic. And while student population is bouncing back, growth trends remain manageable — for now.

“We expect to see growth (in MFISD) from 1½ to 3 percent, depending on what happens in the housing market,” Allen said. “We understand the first property has closed in Gregg Ranch. It will be interesting to see if the market shifts to more growth. We expect more students will come into the district as the (housing) market grows.”

Gregg Ranch is a 242-acre, master-planned development southeast of the Texas 71-U.S. 281 interchange south of Marble Falls. Officials believe that, once it’s fully built out, it will add 1,250 homes to the area. Thunder Rock and Roper Ranch are two other developments planned for the Marble Falls area. A completely developed Thunder Rock, also situated at U.S. 281 and Texas 71, will have about 2,900 homes. Outside of the city limits, the Spicewood area is also seeing more development.

While the number of new homes under construction is a way to measure growth, Allen said the district looks at other signs as well, such as the number of new retail stores and restaurants.

Allen and McBurnett said the best way to prepare for expected growth is to take proactive steps as much as possible.

MFISD created a planning committee about five years ago to take a good look at the district, its facilities, and its future needs. From that committee, the district developed a $55 million bond project that voters approved in 2018.

This year, BCISD voters approved a four-part bond package for around $52 million. The money will be used for renovations on all campuses, including a new wing at Bertram Elementary School; upgrades to athletic facilities, including a new weight room at the high school and a new field at the middle school; improved internet infrastructure across campuses; and a 50,000-square-foot student activity center. 

Another challenge districts face as student enrollments grow is finding teachers. The number of teachers in the pipeline is getting smaller as the demand for them increases, McBurnett said. Attracting and keeping good staff includes creating an inclusive culture that supports them and the students.

“We think we have a special culture here in Burnet with ‘Spirit, Pride and Honor,’” he said, referencing the district’s motto. “Having a culture where teachers and staff feel they belong and can make a difference in, that’s important as well.”

Shared values in the district and community are great reasons to come to MFISD to work, Allen said. 

“Marble Falls ISD consists of several municipalities and the county, and we tend to be more focused on cooperation than competition in this area,” he said. “I think that’s important. Part of what pulls us all together is a shared sense of community values. As we grow, both as a school district and community, I hope we can find ways to keep those values.”

This story is part of a series on post-pandemic growth in the Highland Lakes. “Growing Pains” stories will be posted throughout June on DailyTrib.com. The series kicked off in the June edition of The Picayune Magazine. Other stories can be found hereherehere, and here. 

daniel@thepicayune.com