If you build a school, but most of the neighborhood is against it, will they come?
That was the question I was left pondering after conversations on both sides of a debate over whether the proposed site for White Rock Valley Elementary. On one side, you have Richardson ISD, who insists that the site – bordered by Walnut Hill, White Rock Trail and DART tracks is the most viable option. On the other, you have the parents and neighbors who insist the site is dangerous, expensive and potentially unallowable because of a public deed restriction in place since the 1970s.
The opposition has coalesced into a grassroots group – “We Have a Voice.” Rahul Yodh, its spokesman, says that the group realizes that overcrowding at White Rock Elementary means something must be done – but not at this site.
“We see the need for a school, it’s just a really bad location for it,” he said. “Our precinct is one of the only ones that voted against the bond in May. We’ve been really firm in our opposition, but they (Richardson ISD) have kind of ignored us.”
Yodh said that more than 1500 emails have been sent to Dallas city councilman Adam McGough (White Rock Valley, which sits in Lake Highlands, is in Dallas city limits, but is in Richardson ISD attendance zone). Of those emails, “86.4 percent are against the school,” Yodh said, adding that for comparison, “only 750 people from our precinct cast ballots in the council election.”
Richardson ISD communications director Tim Clark said that the district feels it’s made a good effort to make sure stakeholders get a say and to make sure the process is transparent, pointing to a regularly updated website designed to disseminate the most current status of the project and answer questions.
“Throughout this process, the district has heard a wide variety of feedback from stakeholders, including residents with concerns about the site and parents in support of the new school,” he said. “RISD is responsible for accommodating the very substantial enrollment growth within the White Rock Elementary attendance boundary, and Board members have recognized that no solution is going to please everybody.”
“We Have a Voice” has several arguments about why the site is unsuitable for a school, but the biggest one – and possibly the biggest hurdle for Richardson ISD – is the fact that neighbors petitioned for and received a deed restriction on the plot years ago. This deed restriction limits what kind of uses the plot has.
“My next door neighbor has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years now,” Yodh said. “My neighbor and her husband and brother-in-law went door to door to get the deed restriction passed.”
“There’s a true neighborhood element to it,” he added. “They had the forethought to put that deed restriction in place. And it’s a public deed restriction, not a private one.”
In fact, a recent demolition permit McGough shared on his Facebook wall indicates that the city is aware of the deed restriction. On the permit, dated September 16, it is noted in the application remarks, “Note: School is not permitted on this site.”
However, Clark said the district feels confident that it can prevail. “RISD believes it can legally build a school on the site and is continuing to work with City staff on the issue,” he said Tuesday.
Beyond the deed restriction, the group has a laundry list of issues that they say make the site unsuitable. “It’s bounded by the only industrial site in District 10,” Yodh said. “And then DART tracks, an access ramp, Walnut Hill Lane, and then White Rock Trail, a two-lane road that really can’t be widened.”
It can’t be widened, he said, because it would require neighbors living on the street to give up land and “a little further south, it’s in a floodplain and there are drainage ditches – which means they’d have to deal with the Army Corps of Engineers.”
Because of the busy streets and the narrowness of White Rock Trail, the group feels one of the things most prized about the neighborhood and the existing White Rock Elementary – walkability – would be sacrificed.
“I watch children and their parents walk past my house every morning,” Yodh said. That walkability is part of the neighborhood’s identity, neighbors will tell you.
But the lot size is also an issue, too.
“The site is also really small – four and a half acres,” Yodh continued. “It’s not flat – it’s on this slope. It’s a 39-foot change in elevation. That makes it really hard and expensive build on.”
The school, which will be two stories and will have a parking garage, will generate more traffic on White Rock Trail (to get a look at the proposed building and specs, see this packet from Richardson ISD). The district has done traffic studies that indicate that traffic signals will likely need to be re-timed during school hours, but city traffic studies are pending.
The group said that they even feel the district’s price tag may be wrong. “They say it will cost $30 million, because they’re not counting the land cost and demo cost. With a 10 percent overrun, you’re at $39 to 40 million,” Yodh said.
Although the group has said in other interviews that it’s Richardson ISD’s job to find a better site, they do point to several alternatives. “There are alternatives out there, “ Yodh insisted. “RISD seems to have their mind made up on this. They only spent 3 weeks looking for land.”
Yodh outlines a timeline that begins in November 2015. “One of our members spoke about the overcrowding issue at a school board meeting,” he said, adding that they were told the district wanted to wait until demographic information was released in January.
“January the demographic info comes out, and on the 26th, they’re in negotiations to buy this property,” he said.
“McGough worked to negotiate a land swap with the Dallas Parks and Rec,” Yodh continued. “That was a viable option, and RISD turned it down.”
The group also said there are other commercial properties available, and although the land cost would be higher, the construction costs would be less.
“They count the land cost in when they’re talking about alternative properties, but don’t count it in when they talk about this piece of land,” Yodh added. “They keep kind of blowing through our opposition, and they aren’t listening to the community.”
“During discussions related to bond planning and enrollment growth, RISD began evaluating potential sites for land acquisition in fall of 2015 near the areas of most significant enrollment growth in Lake Highlands,” Clark said. “The area is well developed, and existing property and sites both on and off the market were evaluated. The White Rock Trail site was evaluated in early 2016, and architects confirmed the site could accommodate an elementary school.”
“Based on evaluations of sites in the area, RISD staff believed the White Rock Trail site was the best location available and would provide the Board of Trustees with an option to accommodate enrollment growth directly in the K-6 attendance area experiencing the highest levels of growth in RISD.”
Clark said the evaluation process continued while they were negotiating the purchase of the land. “RISD continued to evaluate sites after the White Rock Trail property was purchased, and again determined that the WRT location was the best site available for a new school from among available options in the area.”
“The district considered more than 15 potential sites for a new elementary school, including land the district currently owns at Lake Highlands HS and Lake Highlands JH,” he said. “Consistent with evaluations of previous school sites in RISD, the merits of different potential sites were discussed by Trustees in closed sessions to allow the district to remain competitive in negotiations to secure land. RISD is choosing to keep the specific locations confidential so negotiations can be competitive in the event the district pursues one of the sites in the future.”
Most recently, the district said it would form a committee of neighborhood stakeholders to hear out community concerns. Yodh said he sent emails to the board, to see if “We Have a Voice” would be included. “Crickets,” he said. “I haven’t heard a thing.” The committee, he said, is currently made up of district officials, PTA presidents, Dad’s Club presidents and homeowners associations.”
Yodh said he knows the district will push ahead on this site. “They’re going to apply for permits, the city will deny them, and then it will go into litigation,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the boundaries are, or the makeup of the school. The site is not safe, the site is not walkable, it’s going to cause a huge traffic problem, and it’s too expensive.”
“Yes, the voters gave you this bond money, but you have to spend it responsibly,” he added.
Families have also said they’ve been warned that if this site falls through because of opposition, their children could be sent to schools further away from their neighborhood.
“If they are going to do a comprehensive redrawing of the boundaries, that’s OK. We get that,” Yodh said. “What we don’t want, which is the threat, is that we’re going to pluck kids from White Rock Elementary and send them to the Lake Highlands school furthest away – which is Thurgood Marshall.”
Lake Highland isn’t at capacity and is closer,” he added. “For Lake Highlands Elementary, 350 kids live in its attendance zone. Attendance is 650 because they bring in kids and have special programs. Capacity is 750.”
“The earliest a new school could be open is in time for the 2018-19 school year, and if the planning or construction process is delayed, it could be 2019-2020. White Rock’s enrollment is projected to surpass 1,000 student by 2018,” Clark said when asked about where students would go if the project was delayed. “Additional portable classrooms at WRE are not considered an option from a school operations standpoint, so once different grade levels become full (which would likely occur during pre-registration in the spring), students would be temporarily assigned to other RISD schools that do have capacity in respective grade levels through a process known as overflow.”
“The district won’t have an idea of which other schools will have space in different grade levels for the 2018-19 school year until the late spring/summer of 2018,” he continued. “Given the high number of students that are projected to be overflowed, a combination of other schools will likely accommodate WRE students until the new school can open, potentially including both Lake Highlands and Thurgood Marshall elementary schools, among others.”
Yodh said longtime residents of his neighborhood have told him that Richardson ISD has apparently not learned from its own history. “RISD did this before back in 1996,” he said. “They wanted to build the freshman center on White Rock Trail, about 1100 feet from this site. The proposed site was on the south side, where the nursing homes are now.”
“They bought the piece of land. Faced tons of neighborhood opposition to it. And they eventually backed off, and built the center where it is now.”
“My neighbor tells me that she asked the board, ‘How many of you all have actually gone to this site?’ Three of the seven raised their hands,” Yodh added. “It was in a floodplain.”
Yodh, whose children attend private schools, says that he does wonder how many parents will opt to send their children to the new school if the district succeeds in building it on such a contentious spot.
“The people who would be zoned to it are fairly affluent, and can afford to go private,” he said. “So I don’t know.”