Construction by the numbers
In April 2014, Dallas ISD trustees approved spending $130 million to fix what they deemed as the worst of the district’s facility problems, as well as to overhaul the facilities of new choice schools. Here’s how it impacts schools in our neighborhood:
Construction on all of these projects is expected to begin summer 2016 and finish in time for the 2017-18 school year. The one exception is Sanger, which should begin next April and finish in time for the 2016-17 school year.
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Source: Dallas ISD, as of July 10, 2015
There are apparently two ways to convince DISD to spend $13 million on your elementary school: Knock on the doors of district trustees, or hope a trustee knocks on your door.
Lakewood Elementary took the first approach last spring, after parents had abandoned their hopes of circumventing the board process to build a new wing and renovate the school. The Lakewood Elementary Expansion Fund (LEEF) had formed in 2013 hoping to raise $15 million to renovate its existing 1951 building. The goal was also to replace Lakewood’s 14 aging portable classrooms and two modular buildings, both 40 years old and declared 100 percent unsafe by an independent facility study.
Normally, schools are built or renovated with taxpayer-approved bonds, but LEEF organizers knew this could take a few years (the board is considering whether to call a November bond election, as of press time) and weren’t willing to wait. They felt that “the school is too academically advanced for the buildings to be so outdated,” LEEF president Dorcy Clark noted in an August 2013 Advocate story.
Based on conversations with DISD trustees and administrators, organizers thought that if they raised $500,000 from the community, the district would match these funds and LEEF also could tap into $5 million in federal stimulus money set aside for school projects backed by private funding. They hoped to raise the remaining $9 million via corporate donations.
LEEF reached its community fundraising goal in June 2014 but discovered after-the-fact that the school didn’t qualify for the stimulus funds because it lacks impoverished students. Then corporate donors told LEEF organizers they weren’t interested in contributing until the district put some skin in the game.
So, despite their best efforts to take matters into their own hands, Lakewood Elementary parents found themselves in the same position as every other Dallas ISD school — at the mercy of the trustees.
Lucky for them, administrators already had been fashioning a “bridge financing plan” — a fancy term for putting together funds to immediately help schools with the worst facilities so they wouldn’t have to wait on a bond election. Both Lakewood and Stonewall Jackson Elementary, considered two of the top elementary schools in not only East Dallas but also the entire district, were on that list, standing to gain $12.6 million and $5.3 million, respectively. (Stonewall has 15 portable classrooms.)
“These are mostly affluent communities,” says Stonewall parent Mita Havlick of both her school and Lakewood, and “because we were the squeaky wheel, because we screamed the loudest, that might have worked against us,” she says. “We wanted to make sure we stayed on that list.”
Parents at both schools began organizing, pressing their own agendas on trustees and also working to advocate for the other 12 schools for which millions were at stake. Though it wasn’t on the initial list, Casa View Elementary in Trustee Dan Micciche’s Far East Dallas district was a “glaring omission,” he said, and Havlick says she reached out to the school on three separate occasions trying to elicit parent support. She wasn’t successful.
“Our view was this bridge plan was not for Stonewall; it was good for 10,000 kids,” Havlick says. “The best people to fight for the children of DISD are the parents,” but she recognizes that “not all schools have that luxury.”
“I don’t work full-time; I don’t need to work full-time,” continues Havlick, which allows her, and parents like her, more time for advocacy. “We kind of fill gaps where the district has left a hole. We have the benefit of being able to do that, but that’s not the right thing at the end of the day.”
In the end, the board unanimously approved a plan to give dilapidated schools roughly $130 million. Lakewood and Stonewall parents showed up to the board meeting en masse to make their case, and many stayed until after 1 a.m. when the proposal passed. After the vote was counted, Trustee Mike Morath, who represents both elementary schools, collapsed into his chair — perhaps out of exhaustion, perhaps relief.
No one from Casa View Elementary made a public appearance at that meeting. Micciche, however, successfully added the school to the bridge plan in the 11th hour, arguing that Casa View had 26 portable classrooms, more than any school on the list, and was tied for the lowest safety ranking.
“We have an equal obligation to the schools who don’t have parent participation,” Micciche says. He notes that 65 percent of Casa View students are English language learners, which “probably means their parents don’t have the kind of advocacy training and ability that middle-class parents have, but their conditions were just as bad as Lakewood.”
“It may be that their parents don’t know how to advocate,” he says, “but I’m advocating for them.”
And the most effective advocates for schools like Casa View are their staff, Micciche says. It was a teacher assistant at Far East Dallas’ Truett Elementary who answered her door when Micciche was campaigning for his first term on the board and told him of the abysmal conditions at her school. One of the first things he did after being elected was use his position as a megaphone, calling for $13 million in desperately needed renovations to Truett.
“The role of a DISD teacher, counselor, teacher assistant, principal in a high-poverty school is so much larger and so important because of not having a lot of parental participation,” Micciche says.
After the board vote on the bridge plan, at 1:06 a.m. from his chair behind the dais, Micciche emailed Casa View principal Oscar Aponte to give him the good news: Casa View would receive $5.3 million for a new wing. He received the principal’s effusive thanks, “for not only helping us get the new wing but for all the things you are doing for all of the Dallas children,” at 3:03 a.m.
“Apparently,” Micciche says, “Principal Aponte had a late night, too.”
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