Despite claims by We Have a Voice members to have overwhelming opposition in their White Rock neighborhood to Richardson ISD’s proposed school at White Rock Trail and Walnut Hill and despite their claim that hundreds of parents and homeowners have contacted trustees to say so, trustees at a called work session Monday night seemed bewildered at the level of opposition to the site and listened attentively, asking questions to gain insight. Interim Superintendent Dr. Jeannie Stone and School Board President Kim Caston presented “takeaways” from their meeting with White Rock community leaders, the purpose of which was to “listen and receive feedback,” Caston said, “versus actively respond.”
At the October 6th meeting, Stone said, White Rock residents including HOA presidents, multifamily housing reps and leaders from the WRE Dads Club voiced their concerns about the White Rock Trail site and shared alternative options. WRE Principal Lee Walker reminded the group of the urgent need for a solution due to enrollment growth and overcrowding. Stone revealed RISD’s shopping of 15 properties prior to the purchase of White Rock Trail, seeking 6-7 acre parcels in the WRE attendance area which could be purchased without use of eminent domain and which could produce open schools by August of 2018. The search culminated in the purchase of 4.5 acres for $4.5 million, with a traffic study now completed and designs now approved.
“We heard from the members of the community who were in attendance that there are strong feelings of dissatisfaction with this site,” said Stone.
“I’m hard pressed to figure out why that’s a bad location. We have schools that are near large thoroughfares like Walnut Hill and smaller roads like White Rock Trail all over the place in RISD,” said Trustee Eron Linn. “It’s going to continue to get [crowded] according to our demographic projections.” He pointed to the district’s traffic study, which provided mitigation for problems such as traffic and limited space for carpool with timed signals, directional flow and stacking lanes.
“When members of the community are driving down that road in their real world life, they don’t feel that it’s a good site,” responded Stone, sharing the group’s concerns about congestion on White Rock Trail and the size of the site.
Trustee Katie Patterson added her concerns about the ability of students to walk to school without sidewalks along White Rock Trail.
“I continue to hear about site challenges, and obviously it’s not 7 or 8 acres like some other schools are,” said Justin Bono, “but there are fewer negatives to this site than other potential sites that we looked at, and we thought this was best.”
“Yes, we’d like to have a larger piece of property centered in a neighborhood,” said Stone. “We can turn this into a great school, but we’ve not been able to have the community receive that.”
Instead, the group asked RISD officials to consider (a) building onto WRE, (b) involving Northlake Elementary (including adding classrooms and reconfiguring boundaries) and/or (c) splitting grade configurations, that is making WRE a school for K-2 or K-3 students and the new WRT school a 3-6 or 4-6.
Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Brenda Payne made it pretty clear Option C was dead in the water, saying “research says splitting grades is a last resort and not in the best interest of student growth.” Dr. Stone agreed.
Discussion of Option A made it sound equally unlikely. “You’d be making some adults happy,” said Justin Bono, “but you’d be doing a disservice to the kids with a school for 1100,” referring to growth projected by 2018.
Involving Northlake piqued the interest of several trustees, especially considering the district’s inexplicable difficulties in attracting young homeowner families to the school. Discussion in recent months has centered around making Northlake a magnet school, and enlarging the school to pull in well-to-do, hyper-involved families would change the demographics – and likely the perception – of both the school and the surrounding neighborhood. From a current capacity of 680 (current enrollment is 620), 10 classrooms could be added to bring capacity to 900. Students could be diverted from White Rock, where enrollment is now 928 with 30 students currently being overflowed, or sent elsewhere due to lack of space.
The urgent need for a solution was highlighted by Michael Freeman, RISD’s Director of Special Projects. Freeman outlined the complicated task of finding a school home for all of the district’s 39,297 current students – the largest number in RISD history.
Over half of students overflowed in RISD are in Lake Highlands, he said, the result of 25% growth in LH attendance. In the past 5 years, WRE has increased by 308 students, with more growth all but guaranteed. Other LH schools are “moving targets,” he said, for instance, since this time last year, WRE is up by 44 students, Northlake is down 14, Audelia Creek is down 145 and Aikin is up 126. Interestingly, in that time, WRE has overflowed 20 students to Northlake, with 4 other schools also sending students there.
In May, trustees announced plans to build a second elementary school in LH area they called “the crescent” – the area bordered by Abrams Road, Royal Lane and LBJ. “The fact that we’re building two elementary schools in Lake Highlands tells you there are not a lot of empty classrooms sitting around,” agreed Justin Bono.
No decision was made by trustees regarding use of the White Rock Trail site, but the district is in the process of hiring a consulting firm to grapple with the issue, particularly (a) WRE boundaries, (b) the crescent elementary and (c) a facility use study involving trends, capacity and usage. Once the firm is hired, their report is expected in the spring.
In the meantime, demolition continues at the White Rock Trail site but the real drama is likely coming. City officials have made it clear that, with active deed restrictions there, they have no intention of granting a construction permit for a school on that site. Trustees did not say if they will wait to hear from their consultant before seeking that city permit or they are steaming ahead to build. If they are rejected at the city, RISD officials will be forced to decide if they have the stomach for a court fight with the City of Dallas.
As always, we will keep you updated here on the blog.