Backhoes, bulldozers and construction crews across Dallas are busy building schools at breakneck speed to open 14 campuses in the coming years — all funded by a $1.3 billion bond package approved in 2008.
But much has changed in 21/2 years.
The economy has taken a beating of historical proportions, new housing construction has all but halted, and the Texas Legislature is expected to slash the district’s funding, perhaps by 20 percent.
Despite the changed landscape, Dallas ISD officials say they are plowing ahead with their plans and are more committed than ever. They say the campuses are needed to relieve school crowding; construction costs are down; and the work created by the program is keeping thousands of people employed.
“We feel that we have been monitoring everything,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said, “Right now we don’t need to make any big adjustments.”
The demographic study that pinpointed areas most in need of the new schools was completed in 2007. Four years later, two central questions emerge:
Will the campuses be in the right spots?
Will the district be able to afford to operate the new campuses despite a potential historic cut in state funding?
District officials say yes on both counts.
Those who have worked in school planning and finance could not comment specifically on Dallas ISD’s situation but said school districts must make absolutely sure that there’s a demand for new schools, and they must be able to pivot plans to new realities.
“It’s so critical,” said Henry Jones, a former Los Angeles Unified School District chief financial officer. “If you are wrong on that, you could be going down a black hole.”
Most of the new schools will be south of the Trinity River, where officials said many schools didn’t make the cut during the 2002 bond program.
They also include campuses that will serve students who previously attended schools in the Wilmer-Hutchins district, which was absorbed by DISD in 2006 when that district collapsed.
A demographic study DISD commissioned to help plot school locations before the 2008 bond campaign predicted a rise in new housing construction within the district. The report was completed in early 2007, long before the depths of economic downturn.
The study estimated that parts of DISD would see an influx of new housing and students. It forecast thousands of new housing units from 2007 through 2011 in Pleasant Grove, Balch Springs and Seagoville. Those areas are slated to get seven new schools, with one opening later this year.
But the demographic report’s construction prediction hasn’t panned out, said David Brown, who oversees the Dallas office of housing analyst Metrostudy.
In fact, the opposite has occurred.
New construction for homes, townhouses and condominiums in Dallas ISD has plummeted 80 percent since 2006, Brown said. Lots remain undeveloped as construction of single-family homes has plunged 70 percent.
Dallas ISD has made mistakes before with flawed demographic reports for new schools. Most notably, district officials pushed in the 2002 bond campaign for a new high school in northeast Dallas, an area then flush with apartment complexes.
When the $50 million Conrad High School opened in 2006, those apartments had been bulldozed. Half of the school’s classrooms sat unoccupied.
Conrad’s not alone. The district operates more than a dozen schools that sit half full, including some that have opened in the past few years. Meanwhile, others are overflowing, according to district records.
Phil Jimerson, the district’s deputy chief of operations, said the new schools don’t rely on projections for student growth to fill classrooms. The numbers will come from students already in the district who are either taking classes in portables or in overcrowded schools.
A looming deficit
Four of the new schools are slated to open this fall. Years in the making, their grand openings come as officials are fearing one of the worst budget shortfalls in Texas.
The Legislature must cut somewhere. And Hinojosa and other Texas school district leaders believe lawmakers will target the state’s largest expense, education.
A first-draft state budget could cut as much as $250 million from Dallas ISD next school year. Such a decline would likely prompt layoffs and other severe cost-cutting measures, district officials have said. For perspective, $250 million translates into how much it costs to pay 4,500 Dallas ISD teachers, or about 40 percent of the district’s teaching staff.
The district is devising its plan on how it might make up such a gap. Hinojosa has advocated for up to 10 furlough days, which school districts currently cannot enact.
“We don’t have very many choices,” he said.
School construction is not paid for from the district’s operating budget, as the bond money covers those costs. But once they are built, the new campuses will need new principals, librarians, custodians and nurses. Paying those employees at a school can cost between $400,000 and several million dollars a year.
School officials say that some of the cost is simply shifting from one campus to another. As students shift, their teachers will follow. But the infrastructure of a separate campus will require some extra funds and positions.
The district planned on using state grant money to help hire new school personnel, but the Texas House preliminary budget released this month proposes to eliminate that fund.
“It is a challenge, and if the state takes money away, that will be a challenge for us,” Hinojosa said. “But it won’t be an insurmountable challenge.”
No turning back
This far into the bond program, changing course would be difficult, even with schools that have not yet broken ground.
In December, the district took the unusual step of selling a large chunk of the $1.3 billion bond issue in one fell swoop. Often, school districts or cities will pass bond packages and sell the bonds through the years as a bond program progresses.
DISD sold $950 million at once to take advantage of low interest rates and an expiring federal stimulus program that provides a 35 percent interest subsidy from the government. It was the largest school bond sale in Texas history. The subsidy is expected to help DISD save $102 million over the 25-year lifespan of the issue.
The district is required to spend 85 percent of the $950 million within three years.
Construction crews are clearing land throughout Dallas, with seven more schools scheduled to open about a year from now. And when the bond’s 14 new schools are completed and campus renovations are finished, the backhoes and bulldozers might not rest for long.
An initial 2008 bond proposal suggested $2.65 billion to cover the district’s needs. That amount was ultimately cut in half, leaving more renovations and repairs for the future, district officials said. Officials are starting to plan for a billion-dollar bond program in 2013.
ass, Asses, bra, break, campuses, Cher, chi, d, dallas, def, district, goo, Google, google.com, government, h, have, house, infrastructure, l, new, news, Pee, plans, s ex, school, school-district, start, state, texas, the-district, tori, tween, v, work, www, years