A 1950s-era photo of Hexter Elementary, designed by architect William H. Hidell Jr. Photography courtesy of the University of North Texas Libraries.

GENEVA HEIGHTS ELEMENTARY is one of the oldest schools in Dallas ISD. Built as Robert E. Lee Elementary in 1931 by noted local architect Mark Lemmon, it replaced a portable that lacked a lunchroom and lounge for the four teachers and principal. A group of determined parents led by A.C. Fair formed a PTA and pushed for a proper school.

Eighty-seven years later, parents are still advocating for an adequate facility. The aging building is third worst in the district, according to DISD’s facility condition index. District officials say they would need to invest 91 percent of the building’s total cost to keep the school in working order.

In last year’s general election, voters approved a $3.5 million bond that calls for the demolition and replacement of 13 DISD schools, including Geneva Heights, Hexter and Reilly elementary schools.

“We have schools that just cannot wait for a major renovation,” says David Bates, assistant superintendent of maintenance and facility services. “We’ve got schools that cannot wait to get their roof replaced, their HVAC or their plumbing. These are things that we want to attack right now.”

Yet some neighbors don’t want to lose a community school. Historic schools are landmarks that contribute to a sense of place in the neighborhood, says Dave Preziosi, executive director of Preservation Dallas. Without a historic designation, there’s nothing to protect schools from demolition except a contingent of neighbors who are working with district officials to preserve significant parts of the building.

Preservation Dallas recommends renovating the core structure and adding new spaces instead of tearing entire buildings down. In the past, DISD has shown interest in the suggestion. It’s possible that future construction would only gut the interior of the structure and leave the façade, with its decorative reliefs and floral detail work, predominately intact — except to accommodate additions. Or the designs could copy the look of the old buildings.

A photo from the groundbreaking of Geneva Heights Elementary in 1931. Photography courtesy of the Dallas Morning News Archives.

“I’ve expressed publicly my support for maintaining the historic parts of the building,” says Dustin Marshall, the trustee for District 2, which includes Geneva Heights. “This will be a community-intensive and collaborative process. It will not be done behind closed doors. There will be chances to voice perspectives on key issues at each of the campuses.”

Major construction at schools is still months away. This month, Bates hopes to assign architects and project management firms to each campus. Meetings with school staff and community stakeholders can then begin in June. Designing a new school typically takes about nine months, and it takes about five months to get a building permit from the City of Dallas. Construction is scheduled for 16 months, with a tentative completion date set for October 2023.

“These schools are slated to be replaced with new state-of-the-art, energy-efficient buildings with plenty of natural light and space and modern technology,” says Dan Micciche, the trustee for District 3, which includes Hexter and Reilly. “These school communities would go from having some of the worst buildings in the district to the best.

Once the new schools are complete, the district intends to use bond money for preventative maintenance.

“We do a bond every five, six, seven years,” Marshall says. “Before that, they were fewer and farther between. There wasn’t money to upkeep these buildings that were built differently and, frankly, not built to last as long. This bond, even though it’s the largest in Texas history, still isn’t enough to address the entire wish list. It’s large enough to address priority one and two needs, but priority three and four will become priority one and two needs. We’re always fighting against the passage of time.”

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