TOUGH DECISION

BISD to propose closing schools

 

By GARY LONG

Staff Writer

 

The Brownsville Independent School District has begun to confront a dilemma that has been lurking for years: consolidating and or closing schools.

“Every five years we are losing the equivalent of a small district, one the size of a Roma or Valley View,” interim Superintendent Sylvia Hatton said at a facilities committee meeting this past week. “We have to have a five-year facilities reduction plan. … Consolidating schools, closing schools is as difficult a decision as any public entity can make. It tears at your heartstrings.” 

District Planner Lee Garcia presented data showing BISD enrollment has fallen from 49,111 in the 2010-2011 school year to 44,452 this year, a loss of 4,659 students. The projected enrollment for next year is 43,335. He said the city’s birth rate has fallen from 5,882 in 2003 to 4,912 in 2010 to 4,121 in 2017 accounting for part of the decline.

Hatton’s administration outlined plans to close Victoria Heights and Longoria elementary schools, demolish Garza and construct a new campus, and replace old classrooms with new wings at Cromack, Vermillion, Martin and Egly elementary schools.

The three campuses to be closed are not equipped for new technology, are not energy efficient and their bathrooms lack air conditioning. Additionally there is not enough room to move students from one part of the campus to another while reconstruction takes place, district personnel said.

The committee agreed to move forward with hiring an independent demographer to assist with school closure and consolidation decisions. Once hired, a report from the demographer could be expeted late this year or early next, Hatton said.

She said there is no defined timeline to execute any facilities consolidation plan, adding that the matter was simply brought up as a discussion item.

“We want to assure our staff and students that no one’s job is at risk and that students would be going to a safe harbor,” Hatton said. “If and when any action occurs our students will be received at a welcoming and prepared campus and staff employment will be safeguarded. … This is a preliminary proposal of the administration to the board of trustees based on several months of Facilities Committee meetings. Since September a deliberative process has emerged that includes months of discussion, data collection and review. We’re just starting the process.”

She said she would meet with all affected parties including principals and parents starting today.

Meanwhile, the wings with outdoor classroom-to-classroom access at Garden Park Elementary would be replaced with new parking lot and improved student pick-up lanes, the old part of Canales Elementary would be torn down, Stell Middle School would get a new gym and front office area, while Faulk Middle School would get a new band hall.

Brownsville Learning Academy Middle School would be moved from the old Brownsville Academic Center campus on Morrison Road to join BLA High School at the CTE Certification Center at Cummings.

The BISD Board of Trustees must approve all plans. They are being drafted as formal proposals and will be submitted to the board for formal approval, Jimmie Haynes, assistant superintendent for operations said. The work would be accomplished over two to three years, he said

At the same time, BISD is in the middle of upgrading facilities across the district, using the proceeds of an ongoing 11¼ cent property tax increase to leverage money to pay for millions of dollars in long-delayed maintenance like roofs, parking lots and HVAC improvements as well as school reconstruction and needed additions.

The tax increase is to last five years, making all the improvements possible without issuing bonds. The overall aim is to improve the environment and aesthetics of all BISD schools for the benefit of students and to improve learning.

The tax increase generates about $24 million per year in added revenue that is being used to leverage funds for maintenance projects as well as to build a new gymnasium at Hanna Early College High School and a long-envisioned district performing arts center expected to cost anywhere from $35 million to $50 million.

Committee members agreed at the meeting to propose hiring an architect for the project at Tuesday’s Board of Trustees meeting.

Haynes said the optimum size for an elementary school is between 700 and 800 students. It takes virtually the same personnel to operate a school of 300 students as one of 750 he noted.

Currently Victoria Heights has 335 students, Longoria 337 and Garza 406, according to April enrollment data. If the schools were closed, Victoria Heights students would be rezoned to Perez Elementary, Garza would be demolished and a new school built. Its students would be rezoned to Del Castillo and Southmost elementary schools. Longoria students would be rezoned to Canales.

Hatton said BISD is not alone in losing students. School districts throughout the U.S.-Mexico border region are experiencing the same challenges. They also generally share the challenge of aging schools.

Facilities Committee Chairman Philip T. Cowen said decisions about closing schools have been put off for some time. “This board has the courage to make decisions that others haven’t,” he said.