Stop Sanger Expansion2

Signs reading “Stop Sanger Expansion!” have been posted in the front yards of Forest Hills homes, like this one, around the elementary school. (Photo by Jackson Vickery)

The voting booth may be the most effective way to express an opinion, but as we continually see in local elections, most people don’t take advantage of that opportunity.

In Forest Hills, for example, neighbors recently have taken umbrage with a plan to construct a new addition for sixth- to eighth-graders at Alex Sanger Elementary School.

The $19 million addition was part of the voter-approved November 2015 bond issue. Dallas ISD, however, receives no special treatment from the city; like everyone else, it has to seek approval for zoning changes, which was required for the three-story addition at Sanger the district was proposing to build.

When presented to neighbors, specifically the 82 residences within a 500-foot radius of the school, the plan received an overwhelming “no.” Of the 46 households that logged an opinion, 42 of them opposed the expansion, mostly citing traffic issues that increased attendance would cause.

A Dallas Morning News story covering the meeting focused on claims that the school district had done a lousy job communicating with neighbors. Dallas ISD trustee Dan Micciche, whose district includes the school, refuted that claim on his Facebook page, citing a dozen or so meetings between neighbors and city plan commissioners over the last several months, plus Forest Hills Neighborhood Association meetings last fall, that highlighted the Sanger expansion.

He also noted that the November 2015 bond issue received 67 percent approval in Sanger precincts, compared to 60 percent across the district.

But how many of the Forest Hills neighbors who opposed Sanger’s expansion voted in the bond election?

We compared the city’s zoning response documents with the voting roster for that election. Of the 42 households opposed, only eight of them voted — less than a fifth. (Three of the four households who favor the expansion voted.)

We also asked the district to provide a snapshot of how many families who live within Sanger’s boundaries send their children to the school. Its best estimate shows that of 971 elementary school-aged children, 442 of them — nearly half — attend school elsewhere.

“Sanger is Lakewood Elementary 10 years ago,” says East Dallas Councilman Mark Clayton, who represents Forest Hills and also sends his two children to Sanger. “The difference is people who live across the street from Lakewood send their kids there, and at Sanger, they do not yet.

“When people aren’t invested in a school, they have no reason to cheer for it.”

Sanger has long been a school where neighborhood families opt out. A story we published a decade ago looked at the mile-long wait list for transfers to Lakewood Elementary, and a high number of those families were zoned to Sanger.

Several families in Forest Hills and Little Forest Hills, which are zoned to the school, have made attempts over the past decade to turn that tide. And in recent years, they’ve seen a shift. The school’s dual-immersion program, considered one of the top in the district, and its recent expansion to eighth-grade are appealing to a new cadre of parents.

“We want to bring the middle class back to our schools,” Micciche says. “This is a school that has been successful in making big strides toward that end.”

The team of neighbors and district officials who have met over the past few months settled on a compromise that will go before City Council at this Wednesday’s meeting. (Clayton says he recused himself from those negotiations because of his personal involvement in the school.)

The compromise includes a 2-story rather than 3-story addition, as well as a detailed traffic plan. Because more than 80 percent of surrounding neighbors opposed the plan, it will need a 3/4 voting majority to pass.

How will Clayton — who says he will vote, now that a compromise has been reached — justify this to his colleagues on the council?

“There was a real concern from the very beginning about traffic, and a belief that junior high kids would be imported into the school who weren’t there before,” Clayton says. “Once people really understood what was going on, they were able to come to a reasonable agreement.”

“Everybody has the right to make sure that their interests are heard,” Clayton says, “but ultimately kids matter most, and you always take care of kids, and that’s what got accomplished.”

Additional reporting by Jackson Vickery

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