What’s Next for Three Dallas ISD Schools After Tornado?

It took extra debate thanks to a late-arriving compromise plan, but Dallas ISD is ready to address the fates of the three schools hardest-hit by October’s tornado.

The school board approved the renovation of Jefferson High School and construction of a brand-new pre-k through eighth-grade campus that would replace both Walnut Hill Elementary and Cary Middle School.

Both projects are due to be completed in time for the 2022 school year.

Trustees initially were presented with two options – renovate Thomas Jefferson for $82 million, or demolish and start from scratch for $147 million.

A third compromise option proposed replacing Jefferson’s oldest structures while keeping the newest additions. It would cost $124.6 million. Trustee Edwin Flores had asked staff to come up with that middle option.

“We do not anticipate either of these schools opening prior to August 2022, but will keep the community updated as the projects move forward.” -Scott Layne

Thomas Jefferson will get an $82 million renovation, while Walnut Hill Elementary and Cary Middle schools will become a Pre-k – 8th campus. (Courtesy photo, photo graphics: Melanie Thornton)

“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,” he said.

Deputy superintendent of operations Scott Layne explained that although staff initially recommended Option 1, the extra demolition in Option 1A would have improved safety by pushing the school back off Walnut Hill Lane and relieving traffic congestion.

Ultimately, the board voted for Option 1, and after the board meeting, Layne seemed confident that Thomas Jefferson could be renovated within that budget.

“Both TJ and Walnut Hill have been secured and debris removed by our mitigation contractor and tarped in order to prevent rain from intruding into the building. No additional damage from any rainstorm has occurred thus far,” he said. “Contingency dollars have been included in the $82 million renovation for minor unforeseen damages that have not been already identified.”

At a town hall in January, several Walnut Hill parents voiced concerns about the conditions at Field Elementary, where students were relocated.

“We are exploring the ability to do some renovation work at Field over the summer.  However, the scope would be limited due to the short time period,” Layne said.  “In the meantime, the maintenance department is addressing some of the concerns related to fencing and the remainder of the exterior.”

Trustee Dustin Marshall said he would be interested in possibly seeing the Walnut Hill and Thomas Jefferson project timelines separated so that any delays on the high school renovation wouldn’t impact the new school project.

“I’ll push to have them kept separate,” he said, adding that it was also why he attempted to separate the two projects at the board meeting. “They need to be different projects.”

“We expect to phase the construction of this project.  The first phase will consist of demolition and site grading only.  This will take place while the design process is underway,” Layne said. “The Cary school building will be totally demolished, and the Jefferson school will only see limited demolition. We do not anticipate either of these schools opening prior to August 2022, but will keep the community updated as the projects move forward.”

Our full conversation with Scott Layne follows. It has been edited for clarity and length.

PN: There have been several rainstorms since the tornado. How has this impacted the TJ and Walnut Hill sites, and has this potential additional damage been factored into the $82M Option 1 pricetag? 

Layne: “Both TJ and Walnut Hill have been secured and debris removed by our mitigation contractor and tarped in order to prevent rain from intruding into the building. No additional damage from any rainstorm has occurred thus far. Contingency dollars have been included in the $82M renovation for minor unforeseen damages that have not been already identified.”

PN: Can you explain the difference between the CMAR method, which was used to hire a contractor for the TJ and Cary projects, and the more traditional sealed bid process? 

Layne: “In the CMAR method, the contractor is hired at the beginning of the project and assists the architect throughout the design phase in terms of estimating costs.  The CM will bid the project to subcontractors and manage them throughout the renovation project, similar to a general contractor.  In the traditional sealed bid process, the contractor does not come on board until the start of construction.”

PN: Which site will start first – the PK-8 building, or TJ? There has been considerable concern among Walnut Hill parents about the Field location, and we’ve had a few people ask if there is a possibility for that building to be done earlier than 2022. 

Layne: “We expect to phase the construction of this project.  The first phase will consist of demolition and site grading only.  This will take place while the design process is underway.  The Cary school building will be totally demolished and the Jefferson school will only see limited demolition.  We do not anticipate either of these schools opening prior to August 2022, but will keep the community updated as the projects move forward.”

PN: Regarding Field: At a recent neighborhood meeting, several parents voiced concerns about the school – its industrial setting, the fencing, the size of the common areas like the auditorium and library. What, if anything, will be done during the summer to help make Field a little more comfortable for students? 

Layne: “We are exploring the ability to do some renovation work at Field over the summer.  However, the scope would be limited due to the short time period.  In the meantime, the maintenance department is addressing some of the concerns related to fencing and the remainder of the exterior.”

PN: With the renovation of TJ, is there any possibility of reducing its carbon footprint? And will the new PK-8 school be built with this in mind as well? 

Layne: “Both schools will have opportunities to pursue sustainable design features that will reduce their carbon footprint.  The PK-8 school will most likely offer the most opportunities due to it being a brand new school.  While it is too early to determine the extent of potential renewable energy and sustainable materials, both will be a consideration as we move forward.”

PN: When will public input begin for the design process for the two campuses, and how will that play out on the accelerated timeline? There has been some angst among parents as to whether or not they’d get ample opportunity to weigh in – what steps will the district take to give them those opportunities, while still aiming for that August 2022 start date? 

Layne: “We have done some preliminary concept development with the architect that will enable us to move into a public workshop (charrette) right away.  Now that we know which strategic option we are pursuing, we are working on scheduling the workshop(s).  We do have several months included in the time schedule for community meetings and input.”

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital 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 first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, 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 is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at [email protected].

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