Here’s the fundamental question when it comes to planning the long-term future of elementary schools in the Park Cities: How do you plan for the future without tearing down the past?
More to the point, should Highland Park ISD raze and rebuild two of its oldest elementary schools to help accommodate unprecedented enrollment growth?
That’s a dilemma with which HPISD is wrestling as it fine-tunes its priorities for a bond initiative that it plans to put to voters in May, aimed at alleviating student overcrowding at each of its aging campuses as it enters its second century.
In a landlocked district, it’s not as easy as just buying an empty space next to an incoming subdivision. And in a district such as HPISD, where tradition is valued almost as much as anything, it takes an extra level of sensitivity to nostalgia.
Yet a surge in enrollment, coupled with demographic forecasts that show even more growth in the near future, means something must be done. That’s where the district’s facilities advisory committee comes in.
Planning for the future
In November, the committee of community leaders and parent volunteers voiced near-unanimous support for an ambitious plan to shape the future of elementary education in HPISD, by constructing a fifth elementary campus and subsequently rebuilding Bradfield and University Park elementary schools, both of which are almost 90 years old.
The plan, which doesn’t yet have a price tag, would be presented to voters as part of a bond proposal in May that is expected to include several other district-wide facilities initiatives. It still is subject to approval by the district’s board of trustees.
“They’re great schools, but they’re old,” said Lee Wagner, chairman of the FAC’s elementary subcommittee. “It’s time to take the next 100-year advance in our district. We need a master plan.”
It needs to be stressed that such a proposal is still in the planning stages, and has been discussed so far only in a series of sparsely attended meetings with no public input. The opportunity for feedback will come in the next several weeks, when the district will solicit comments during some public forums that haven’t yet been scheduled.
But essentially, the concept has three steps. First, HPISD would build a new elementary campus on 4.6 acres of land it plans to purchase from Northway Christian Church, near the intersection of Northwest Highway and Airline Road.
Once construction is finished, the district would tear down Bradfield and University Park in successive years, with the students from each of those campuses moving to the new school while theirs is being rebuilt.
Then the new school would open with a fresh name and mascot, and begin welcoming students of its own. It would have a projected maximum of 770 students, the same as a renovated Hyer Elementary campus. Under the same plan, Armstrong Elementary would be renovated rather than reconstructed, and will maintain its smaller capacity of 550 students.
Wagner said the subcommittee reached that recommendation after touring each campus extensively, talking with administrators, studying district trends and projections, and analyzing costs and student benefits. He said renovating Bradfield and UP to the extent necessary to accommodate enrollment growth wouldn’t make economic or logistical sense.
“We saw kids in hallways doing work with partners and in groups. There are kids overflowing all over the place,” said subcommittee member Blythe Koch. “Things like tests and conferences are happening in closets. Flex space is really important.”
In 2003, the district had 2,282 students combined at its four elementary schools. By 2013, that number increased to 2,730 students, a jump of almost 20 percent, and about 100 students over the combined capacity. Outside demographer projections forecast enrollment to escalate to 3,091 elementary students by 2023, and continue rising after that.
According to district statistics, all four HPISD elementary schools are currently operating above state-mandated limits for class size, meaning the district must apply for a waiver. That’s not unusual, but it might signal a troubling trend. At Bradfield and UP, more than one-third of classes are above the state limit of 22 students due to space limitations. Administrative and gathering spaces also are too small, and so are outdoor play areas that have been encroached upon by prior renovations.
“As we’ve added on to the elementary schools, we’ve taken up green space,” Koch said. “[Physical education] and recess have a really hard time being out there together.”
The subcommittee recommendation would expand capacity for kindergarten through fourth grade in HPISD to 3,410 students — including 770 apiece at Hyer and the new campus, 660 each at Bradfield and UP, and 550 at Armstrong.
HPISD superintendent Dawson Orr said the district has an agreement in place that’s being finalized with Northway to buy the land contingent upon the passage of a bond election. If it’s passed, the new elementary school could be ready to open its doors by the fall of 2016, according to Jonathan Aldis of SHW Group, the architect hired by the district to oversee the process.
Wagner stressed that the subcommittee’s proposal creates a unique opportunity by allowing students to relocate for a year into a new building while the older ones are being rebuilt. That wouldn’t be the case if the district launched a fifth elementary campus now, and decided later to reconstruct the others.
Looking at long-term options
Of course, the final cost of the bond proposal, including significant upgrades at the Highland Park Middle School and Highland Park High School campuses, will ultimately determine the increase to the property tax rate. Orr said that because of a superior bond rating and other factors — including historically low interest rates — the timing is appropriate for another major bond initiative.
“It’s a political question and not a financial integrity question,” Orr said. “The district can take on more debt.”
Voters overwhelmingly passed a $75.4 million bond issue in 2008 that included renovations to each campus, most notably expanded gyms and cafeterias, as well as security and technology upgrades. That included improvements at Bradfield and UP, of course, which might now be torn down. And the district hasn’t finished paying those bonds yet, either, and won’t be until 2029.
So that might raise questions about fiscal prudence, especially as it relates to the last bond initiative. But the subcommittee presentation noted that demographic projections prior to 2008 have since been exceeded. They want to tackle the current opportunity with more of a big-picture approach.
“We’ve been dealing with overcrowding for 25 years. We’ve always underdone it and been forced to play catch-up,” Koch said. “Eventually we will run out of options on these campuses. We think planning ahead is going to save the taxpayers money in the long run.”