Parents at two East Dallas elementary schools, Lakewood and Stonewall Jackson, found out late last week that new additions at their campuses would be delayed because construction bids on the projects, along with bids for North Dallas’ Nathan Adams Elementary and Seagoville High School, came in $12.5 million over budget.
The Dallas ISD board approved these additions last spring, approving an “interim bridge plan” that would allocate leftover 2008 bond money and other funding sources toward a handful of projects that the district deemed highest priority based on a 2013 assessment of the district’s facilities.
Community meetings had come and gone. Architectural concepts had given way to official designs. The projects were slated to start construction this summer and be complete by the start of the 2017 school year. But last week’s internal district communication stated that funds to pay for the higher-than-projected costs, which were attributed mostly to “a possible bubble of construction activity” in Dallas, were “not available in the Bridge plan contingency.” The recommendation was to redesign and re-bid the projects, which would delay their completion until January 2018.
Lakewood and Stonewall parents got wind of this and went to work. Lakewood parents issued a call to action. Stonewall parents wrote to administrators with similar concerns. The DISD board candidates running to represent both schools, Mita Havlick and Dustin Marshall, issued press releases stating that they were on top of the problem.
All of them agreed: The district needed to make good on its commitment.
“If we were such a priority in the first place, go fix the problem. Find the money to fix the problem,” says Chris Peters, c0-chairman of Stonewall’s site-based decision-making committee.
Administrators have done just that. A new letter from DISD went out this morning, this time recommending that the district use $8 million in remaining 2008 bond funds to pay for the overages at Stonewall, Lakewood and Nathan Adams. (Seagoville High School, which received only one construction bid, will be re-bid.)
“The overages were a concern but at the same time, we want to do what’s best for kids,” says DISD spokesman Andre Riley. “We had immediate needs at schools across the district and wanted to get those resolved.”
Peters says he reached out to the Nathan Adams PTA early this week, and parents at the school hadn’t heard about the possible construction delays. Principals weren’t officially informed until yesterday.
“We’ve always advocated for all these schools and all the children impacted by it,” Peters says of the interim bridge plan. Stonewall’s letter supports this, with the school’s leaders stating: “If DISD believes the initial IBP designs address each school’s problem, the right thing to do is find the funds and see these projects completed.”
Initial district communication last week pointed out that even if the elementary school projects were redesigned and re-bid, the construction estimates might come back just as high or higher. Lakewood and Stonewall parents made similar arguments.
“We are not surprised by the overage,” Stonewall’s letter to trustees and administrators stated. “We can all look around Dallas and see construction cranes everywhere. We read in the news of multiple bond packages approved by neighboring ISDs. DISD should not wait for a bubble to burst and the construction market to soften to make the updates it identified as critical.”
Was this the district’s motivation to reverse course within a week’s time, or was it the parents who raised a ruckus? In theory, the $8 million that will now be allocated to Lakewood, Stonewall and Nathan Adams could have been spent on a different facility, though Riley says he doesn’t believe the money was earmarked for anything else.
“It’s kind of like what we’ve been doing at South Oak Cliff [High School] with the heating and cooling system; you have this money, and as it becomes available, you try to find different uses for it,” Riley says.
The district has to determine “what gives you the most bang for your buck if you have money left over,” he continues. “I think what you’re seeing here is, we think the interim bridge plan is a priority for DISD, for our kids.”