Hundreds of parents of Leander elementary school students are breathing a sigh of relief as the school board could give final approval Thursday night to a new set of attendance boundaries that would keep more than 1,000 students from switching schools.
The district is proposing speeding up construction of its 25th elementary school in order to do so.
The Leander school district has been working for months on a plan to redraw elementary school attendance boundaries — shifting hundreds of students around to even out enrollment at the district’s 23 elementary schools and fill Reed Elementary, set to open next year.
Changing attendance boundaries is common in a rapidly growing district like Leander, and nearly always creates controversy among parents whose children may be forced to change schools. The district’s original plan would have moved 2,262 students. That pushed parents to call for a new elementary school to be built two years sooner than planned — even as the district struggles to balance its debt.
The change is welcome news for parents like Belinda Powell, who said she’s tried to soothe her 9-year-old son, Max, every night since he found out he might have to attend a different elementary school than his friends.
“I think the administration’s plan strikes a much better balance,” Powell said. “They just need another school.”
A committee spent months putting together the original plan, assuming the district wouldn’t be able to open a new elementary until 2017. Dozens of parents wrote or called district officials asking them to change the plan, with many of them calling for the district to open a new school sooner. More than 100 parents showed up to a school board meeting earlier this month to speak out against the plan. That’s when district officials unveiled the alternative.
Until a few years ago, Leander was on a building tear, sprouting three new schools a year. Though growth has slowed some in recent years, the district’s use of a controversial pay-later method of borrowing to accommodate an expanding student body has drawn criticism from the state Legislature.
The district is currently building a sixth high school, a move that put the already deeply indebted district more than $100 million further in the hole. And the more the district builds, the district gets to a state-mandated 50-cent cap on the portion of its tax rate that goes to pay off debt.
But people keep moving to the district, meaning the existing schools continue to fill up.
“Leander ISD is growing in the number of students we are adding and therefore we’ll run out of seats to educate these students,” school board President Pam Waggoner said. “I was surprised that parents wanted to build sooner rather than later. That is not the scenario that’s been presented to this district in the last couple of years.”
Parents say building the new school sooner is worth the cost, because it will keep schools less crowded while preserving the communities around them.
“The fact is, we’re one of the fastest growing districts in the entire state,” said Jason Malmquist, a father of three Leander school children. “If you look at that, the one thing that’s going to happen is, we’re going to need more schools.”
Malmquist, who describes himself as very fiscally conservative, said he grew up in a fast-growth district outside of Houston and realizes that debt is necessary to handle the growth that Leander has seen for decades.
“Guys like me are going to have to smile and say, ‘I understand.’”