Crowd Questions District Plan for Tornado-Ravaged Campuses

Many concerned neighbors and parents at a community meeting about the status of three schools ravaged by October’s tornado wanted two things: to leave Tom Field Elementary as soon as possible and not to feel rushed through the public input process for designing and building the new campus.

The formerly closed Tom Field was quickly pressed into service to house Walnut Hill Elementary students after the storm.

Around 200 people showed up Jan. 15 to hear about the fates of Thomas Jefferson High School, Cary Middle School, and Walnut Hill Elementary School. The Walnut Hill Homeowners Association sponsored the meeting at the Episcopal School of Dallas.

Dallas ISD proposes combining Cary and Walnut Hill for a PreK – eighth-grade campus adjacent to Thomas Jefferson that would utilize the approach that made the elementary a two-time National Blue Ribbon school.

Other options involve either renovating Thomas Jefferson or completely rebuilding it.

The price tag would be $200 million for building two new schools, or $130 million to build the lower school and renovate Thomas Jefferson. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa hopes to open the schools by August 2022.

Dallas ISD school board trustee Edwin Flores and Dallas city council member Jennifer Gates were on hand to answer questions. Flores outlined the goals for the new campuses that had been created after meetings with teachers, administrators, parents, and alumni from each school.

But it was a tough crowd. Neighbors of Thomas Jefferson wanted to know if the district would take into account aesthetics and how the school would look and fit in the neighborhood.

Several parents voiced concerns about Tom Field Elementary, including Walnut Hill parent Florence Durant, who said that while she was grateful to the district for the work it did after the tornado, Field’s location was troublesome.

“It is in an industrial area, about five miles to the west of us,” she said. “Junk auto parts spill over into the playground space through a broken chain link fence along the abutting used car lot.”

A nearby construction yard, she added, shares a barbed wire-topped fence with the school, and the school has repeatedly contacted the city regarding industrial smells in the area.

And everything, she said, is too small – the library, the auditorium, and the classrooms.

Durant and other parents said they don’t know that they can wait until 2022. District officials told the board that enrollment is already down at Jefferson and Walnut Hill as parents are finding the extended commutes arduous.

Flores said moving back into the old Walnut Hill building would likely not happen. The 73-year-old structure no longer fits Texas Education Agency requirements for square footage per pupil, based on 22 students per classroom in elementary grades and 25 students in middle and high schools.

Read about the school board’s decision for both campuses here.

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, deputy editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at bethany.erickson@peoplenewspapers.com.

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