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Highland Lakes school districts prepare for surge in enrollment

spicewood elementary school

Marble Falls ISD administrators anticipate Spicewood Elementary will become the epicenter of growth anticipated in south Marble Falls along the U.S. 281-Texas 71 corridor. Staff photo by Nathan Bush

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series titled “Small Towns, Big Changes” that launched in the August issue of The Picayune Magazine. The series delves into the facts and figures behind the rapid development in the Highland Lakes and what it means for the people who call this region home, whether newcomers or longtime locals. 

Growth is in the air in the Highland Lakes, but local school districts are yet to see enrollment numbers climb to the level expected. Nevertheless, districts are thinking ahead and getting prepared.

Overall enrollment at Marble Falls Independent School District, the largest district in the area, has dropped by about 300 students since 2020. Officials at Burnet Consolidated ISD have seen numbers improve, but only by about 100 students since 2018. Both districts expect that to turn around in the near future.

MFISD Superintendent Dr. Jeff Gasaway gave his own theory on the recent trend, which is closely tied to the Highland Lakes housing market.

“When you look at the average home value for the Marble Falls area, it’s $350,000,” he said. “That may not hit the price range for them to afford the home that they’re looking for as a starter home for a young, up-and-coming family.” 

The drop in enrollment also coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools to move instruction fully online, Gasaway said.

“For some parents, their kids went online and they just made the choice not to have their kids come back to public schools,” he said. “They found the experience worked for them and their families.”

Regardless of the current statistics, both districts understand growth is on the horizon.

MFISD, for example, recently implemented new attendance zones for its elementary campuses. The move was designed to balance enrollments to allow for future growth.

“We looked at our attendance zones back last spring to try to anticipate growth and give some flexibility to our campuses to have growth come in,” Gasaway said. “We have the capacity (for more students) at every one of our campuses. We shifted the boundaries to give a little bit more time for that growth.”

Spicewood Elementary is expected to become the epicenter of growth in the district due to new housing developments along U.S. 281, including Thunder Rock and Gregg Ranch.

“It’s been running right around 200 students for the last several years,” Gasaway said. “It will not surprise me in the next few years if we’re looking at above 300 (students).”

The district’s budget includes plans to handle potential overcrowding.

“We’ve built into our budget the ability to hire some new staff if we were to see a bubble in a particular grade or campus,” Gasaway said.

Burnet CISD has made its own commitments to addressing future growth by putting a four-part, $52.5 million bond package before voters in 2021. The approved bond includes extensive accommodations for student growth, much of which has been completed or is near completion. Expansion work began at Burnet Middle School during the 2022-23 academic year.

“Work that was completed prior to this past school year at Burnet Middle School has been beneficial,” BCISD Chief Financial Officer Clay Goehring wrote in an email response to questions. “It provided more classroom space for the current students while also preparing space for the future.

Other projects, such as a new wing at Bertram Elementary and a new athletic center, were also included in the bond package. 

Bertram Elementary new wing
A new two-story classroom wing at Bertram Elementary will increase capacity from 450 students to 700. The wing was part of a bond package passed by Burnet voters in 2021. Image courtesy of Burnet CISD

“In the past, teachers and students were forced to use every open spot on the (Bertram) campus (for classroom space),” Goehring said. The additions allow all classes to have a true classroom set up in a full-sized space. It also prepares the campus for future growth.”

While agreeing on how to house a growing student population, the districts differ on how that growth will impact education.

On one hand, a rise in enrollment could lead to more educational opportunities for students.

“There are programs we are currently not looking at that, if we were bigger, we would be able to consider,” MFISD’s Gasaway said. “Whether it’s a fine arts program that we currently don’t offer or a course offered at the high school, the more kids you have, the more interest you will have from the kids and the more opportunities we’ll have with staffing to address some unique offerings that you may not be able to offer when you’re a school of 1,200 kids.”

It would also strengthen an array of pre-existing school programs such as athletics and fine arts.

“It helps you be competitive,” Gasaway said. “I am very excited about the growth that is coming. I think it’s going to be great for our kids and our community.”

On the other hand, growth presents drawbacks when it comes to finding the teachers and staff needed to accommodate a rush of new students.

“Growth impacts education in many different ways and in many different areas of a school,” BCISD’s Goehring said. “Right now is a very challenging time to hire teachers. The pool of available teachers is as low as it has ever been. More students require more teachers, and that is a challenge.”

Whether or not school officials agree on the impacts of growth, both agree on one thing. 

Growth is coming, and they are going to be ready.