Residents packed the meeting room at Highland Park Middle School Tuesday night to voice concerns over plans for rebuilding elementary schools within the district.
More than 50 people attended the school board meeting, with many of them taking the time to speak during the public comments section. Several different topics were broached – concerns for parking, the decrease of property values, and a concern for the architectural feel of the new buildings – with the backdrop of children having to shuffle schools for up to two years due to construction.
A growing concern among residents is the possibility of Bradfield and Hyer Elementary schools being rebuilt as three-story campuses. In neighborhoods built in the early 1900s, keeping the surrounding areas “aesthetically pleasing,” as many put it, is important. Some said a three-story school – or any three-story building in Highland Park – would compromise the history of the neighborhood.
“Ask yourself this – would any of us have voted for this [bond package] if we knew a three-story school was the going to be the end result?” said resident Nathan Wood. “These are hundred-year decisions that are being made.”
“I live in a 104-year-old house, and it’s important for us to keep the history of the neighborhood alive,” added resident Nancy Shelton. “We need to pause, rethink and adjust, because we need to keep our historic facades.”
The passing of the $361.4 million bond package in 2015 covers the demolishing and rebuilding of two schools in the next two years, as well as the demolition and current reconstruction of University Park Elementary, expected to be complete in time for fall classes. Renovations for another school, Armstrong Elementary, also were included in the bond program. An unnamed fifth school has already been built and is housing students from the schools under construction.
But some residents felt misled by the language in the bond, and some expressed concern about too little space to park.
Children moving schools is a concern, too. Students from Hyer Elementary will be at the unnamed fifth school for two years, according to school board members, so that Bradfield Elementary students can attend Hyer while Bradfield is rebuilt. Some Hyer students will also be rezoned to the new fifth school with it begins accepting full-time students.
Many Hyer parents said they were unaware that their students would be at the new school for two years, thinking the initial plan was for only one year of displacement.
‘School’s should not be three stories’
University Park is being built with three stories and Bradfield and Hyer elementary schools face the possibility as well, the main topic of concern among residents at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Besides the plethora of people that spoke, door hangers were circulating the meeting that expressed concerns of the citizens.
The hangers express “concerns that the oversized presence of the planned [schools] will damage the character of our neighborhood… we suggest reducing the height of the building[s] by possibly reducing the building to two stories, reducing the height of each floor, to consider using a set-back to the third floor, and consider locating [Bradfield] back on the east end of campus.”
Initial plans have Bradfield situated on the west end of campus, and the three-story design will “overwhelm the neighborhood,” according to the door hangers.
“[We do not want to] stand in the way of demolition and reconstruction; we understand that construction is imminent, and we want state of the art facilities for the new Bradfield,” they read.
“This is important for everyone that lives in the neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t believe at all in three-story school buildings.”
On the issue of the architectural designs of the new schools, residents are worried that the buildings will not “fit in” with the historic, Mediterranean-style of the neighborhood. Specifically, residents noted the lack of the Quatrefoil tile that is repeated throughout Highland park and was prominent on the old Bradford building.
Also, the side of Bradfield that faces Mockingbid Lane, one of the busiest roads in Highland Park, will be the face of the school. Residents want that side of the school to be sure to “express a visual representation of our community’s character,” according to flyers passed out at the meeting.
“The outside of the schools should represent the idea of the neighborhood founders,” said resident David Gravel. “We all know that the Park Cities is an excellent place to live, and one of those reasons is our school system. But our neighborhood also offers a small-town feel right in the middle of a complicated city, and the designs of the school go a long way in helping.
“I think this project has created a divide among citizens that will not be easily overcome.”
A recent decline in Highland Park ISD enrollment has those same parents wondering if a new school is even necessary.
At a neighborhood meeting last month, several residents in attendance claimed that, if current enrollment numbers stand, there figures to be approximately 950 empty seats in HPISD elementary schools. But district officials claim the fifth elementary school – and subsequent renovations, like the possibly third story at Hyer – are all being made with an eye to the future.
“Schools were at or above capacity prior to the building of the new schools, which are being built to anticipate growth during the next 20 to 30 years,” said Jon Dahlander, HPISD media spokesman. “We are not anticipating growth for the next two years, but we believe that enrollment will grow after all of the construction projects are completed.”
Dahlander noted that the district grew from 4,091 students to 7,091 from 1989 to 2014, but there has been a steady decline in students since then: the 2015-2016 numbers were reported as 7,081; 2016-2017 was 7,044; and this year’s numbers dipped to 6,991.
Elementary school numbers specifically have been down since the 2015-16 school year, as well. Enrollment for grades kindergarten through fifth grade went from 3,250 in 2015 to 3,146 in 2016, down to 3,073 in 2017.
“I’m not sure how [the 950 empty seats] is being calculated,” said Dahlander. “But, there’s no question that one of the goals of the construction program is to increase capacity.”
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