Despite a quick “compromise” option presented to the board last night, Dallas ISD trustees opted to go with the plan to renovate Thomas Jefferson High, versus building a completely new school.
At the end of the very long evening, the board had approved about $132 million to renovate Jefferson and build a brand new pre-k through eighth-grade campus that would replace both Walnut Hill Elementary and Cary Middle School. All three Dallas ISD schools suffered substantial damage after October’s EF3 tornado, with Cary being a complete loss.
Both projects are due to be completed in time for beginning of the 2022 school year.
But the evening wasn’t without some substantial debate. While the lower campus was easily and unanimously passed, the fate of Jefferson took a great deal more discussion.
At January’s board briefing, trustees were presented with two options – renovate Thomas Jefferson, or demolish and start from scratch. The renovate option would cost $82 million, while the brand-new school would come with a $147 million pricetag.
Sometime after the briefing, trustee Edwin Flores, whose district includes the three schools, approached district staff about a potential compromise plan that would see more of the oldest structures demolished and replaced, but would also keep the newer parts, including the unfinished 2019 addition that was interrupted by the tornado. It became known as Option 1A, with a price tag of $124.6 million.
“We were hit by a tornado, these kids are going to be out of their school for basically three years, but we’re going to do something that the city can be proud of,” Flores said of his mindset when he approached district staff for a potential “something in the middle.”
Option 1A, he said, would be “something big, something bold, something for Dallas.”
The renovation option – Option 1 – keeps most of the existing buildings, with the exception of the cafeteria, weight room, dance studio, culinary arts, and ROTC spaces, which were deemed unsalvageable after the tornado.
Trustees grilled assistant superintendent of operations Scott Layne as to why the district was suddenly touting Option 1A as the best choice when, at the board briefing, staff seemed confident that Option 1 would do the trick.
Layne explained that the additional demolition that Option 1A provides would allow the district to improve safety by pushing the school back a bit off of Walnut Hill, which would also relieve traffic congestion in that area.
Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said that 1A also provided them with more ability to complete the school quickly. Officials have said in previous meetings that demolition and new construction would be the faster option, because renovation could uncover issues that can’t be planned for.
“My main argument is the timeline,” he said.
However, not everyone around the horseshoe was convinced, and several were blatantly unhappy with the fact that they were discussing this new option for the first time ever that night.
Trustee Dan Micciche said he took issue with the way the new option was presented, saying that procedurally, it “comes in a very bad way.”
“This is coming up in the last minute – a $42M addition to what the district had already recommended,” he said.
Trustees Joyce Foreman and Maxie Johnson brought up the fight students and parents at South Oak Cliff had to get their school renovated, and said it was unfair to say that a renovation was “good enough” for South Oak Cliff, but not Thomas Jefferson.
“They begged for a new school,” Foreman said. “What’s different? Am I on the wrong side of town? Is my color wrong?”
“One of the schools was hit by a tornado,” trustee Dustin Marshall countered, pointing out that independent assessments of all the campuses in 2013 actually found that Thomas Jefferson, even pre-tornado, was in worse shape than South Oak Cliff.
“To suggest that the other schools around DISD are all the same as a school who just got hit by a tornado, it’s ludicrous and insulting to me,” he said.
“You cannot renovate that has no walls and no roof,” Marshall said. “Words matter.”
“I was the PTA dad at the opposite side of this table when we came here begging for a new school,” Johnson said, adding that he took issue with the fact that “something big for Dallas” didn’t seem to be the mindset in the approach to fixing the South Oak Cliff building.
“The school was hit by tornado. SOC was hit by neglect,” he said. “Both are still storms.”
Several trustees pointed out that South Oak Cliff’s $52 million renovation turned out beautifully. The school recently held a ribbon-cutting celebrating the completion of the project.
“South Oak Cliff looks great,” Micciche said. “That was a complete success.”
“They deserve a first-class facility, and with $82m they’ll get a first-class facility,” he said of Thomas Jefferson students.
The board ultimately opted to change the renovation option back to Option 1 for an $82 million spend, with six voting for Option 1, and three voting for Option 1A.
Look in our upcoming February issue for more on the plans for the three campuses.