Lake Highlands School Site Pits Neighborhood Against Richardson ISD

The Lake Highlands neighborhood that might be home to the proposed White Rock Trail Elementary is pretty adamant about its opposition, citing a deed restriction at the top of its list of reasons. (Photo courtesy Rahul Yodh)

The Lake Highlands neighborhood that might be home to the proposed White Rock Trail Elementary is pretty adamant about its opposition, citing a deed restriction at the top of its list of reasons. (Photo courtesy Rahul Yodh)

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.

Proposed site for White Rock Trail Elementary.

Proposed site for White Rock Trail Elementary.

“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.”

 

30 Comment

  • What a well written article that is actually showing what the majority of the community feels about this location. I am a parent of a second grader at White Rock Elementary right now and have a daughter who will be attending in a couple years. I feel like their are many better options for a future school to be built. RISD doesn’t want to own up to the fact that they made a mistake and should strongly look at a 5/6 grade center at the middle school. A 5/6 grade center would not only help the overcrowding at WRE, but it would also alleviate future overcrowding issues at other neighboring schools.

  • I’ve done land deals with school districts in Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida over the past 20 years, and I’ve never seen a school board ignore the residents like this. Their continued resistance in the face of massive opposition is enough to make you think that someone’s getting some cash under the table here from a developer.

  • Great article!! Thank you.

  • Great article!

  • Great article, thanks for helping make our voice heard!

  • “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.”

    Giving up park land is not a viable option. It may be the option Mr. Yodh wants (so to him viable), But losing parkland in the middle of the neighborhood is horrible option and was not vetted with the public.

    And it just moves your traffic complaints to another neighborhood that also loses park space.

    • It wasn’t a land swap. It was not any sort of giving up park land. It was deal where Lake Highlands HS would lose their on-campus tennis courts in order to build an elementary at the edge of the HS campus. Dallas Fair Oaks park would allow the tennis team to use their courts a mile or so away. It was a proposed school/city partnership, more of which we need. It was not a land swap.

      • George, when I discussed it personally with Adam, his idea was to build an elementary school on the LHHS campus where the tennis courts and baseball field are located, and MOVE the ball fields, stands and parking to the park across the street. Adam assured me and others that he was just brainstorming and that was not a true proposal that would move forward.

        • Thank you. Julie. Yes it showed a good portion of Lake highlands North Park lost to school facilities. i am happy it was dropped

    • It’s incredible that disgruntled neighbors are still promoting the fiction that RISD ignored them. In fact, there were reflector committees, meetings, presentations, and countless surveys over many months through which RISD requested feedback and reported back to the community.

      The “We Have a Voice Group” does not represent the entire neighborhood — far from it. And I would submit that those of us who are committed to the public school system may have more relevant voices than someone with children in private schools. That’s quite a revelation.

      Another revelation is Adam McGough’s negotiation with Parks and Rec for a land swap that was supposedly turned down by RISD. Really? When Adam received very negative feedback on that idea when he posted it on Facebook, he assured those of us in a community meeting that he was “just brainstorming” and had not in fact approached Parks and Rec with the proposal. Which is the truth?

      • Youre right, Julie. The entire neighborhood doesn’t hate the school. Just the sane ones who don’t put all their blind faith in RISD, or have a vested interest like you do.

        • Mike, thanks for providing this perfect example of why more school supporters don’t speak up.

          • If school supporters had valid points, I’d welcome that discussion.

            But saying that “you had your moment to speak” and “you were heard” falls flat when the surveys, town hall meetings and reflector committees all heavily favored a far different solution than the one RISD chose to move forward with. They might have “heard” the community, but they didn’t “listen”. Two different things.

      • If I remember correctly, many of those things were done after this land had already been purchased. I would agree with you that the people with kids in public schools have a very vested interest in this project- but because of this location it also deeply affects everyone in the neighborhood in terms of traffic, safety, and community regardless of whether or not they have children who may or may not attend this proposed school.

    • To clarify any confusion, here is the link to an article from the Advocate “Councilman McGough Proposes Solution To School Overcrowding” http://lakehighlands.advocatemag.com/2016/04/councilman-mcgough-proposes-solution-school-overcrowding/

      I want to be clear, this is just one of many alternatives to a school at WRT. We Have A Voice is not advocating for any one of them. A meaningful conversation on alternatives cannot be had until the school at WRT is stopped. The site is not safe, is not walkable and will pose a significant traffic problem.

  • Such a great article!!!! Well done!!!

  • Excellent article!!

    What’s most upsetting is that RISD has such an incredible opportunity here to really turn the corner in Lake Highlands and make this area the true “destination district” they claim to so desperately desire. And they are absolutely blowing it with this terrible site location. The people in this neighborhood have really sunk their heart and soul into this community and it is just plain sad to watch a callous governmental entity threaten to rip this community apart.

    And Jordan, while I appreciate your strong feelings on the subject I could not disagree with you more. We have more park land than any other neighborhood in Dallas. While I would regret losing any of it, that sacrifice would be well justified to ensure the new school is built in a safe, walkable, financially responsible location. I suspect that if you lived in the affected attendance zone, then you might agree.

  • This headline is very misleading. It makes it sound like it is the entire neighborhood agaainst RISD and the new school. It is a group of people but there is also a group that supports the district. Please tell the whole story.

    • mm

      The body of the story alludes to the fact that about 15 percent either want it or don’t care either way, or both. Headlines have to be brief.

      And please feel free to expand on the neighbors that disagree, and why! And encourage your neighbors who want the school at the proposed site to comment as well – it’s the best way to get the whole story told.

      • Bethany, supporters who speak up are met with abuse. See replies to my comments for a great example combining the main themes: supporters are insane or stupid, in thrall to the evil RISD, have no valid points, and have some kind of secret vested interests in the new school. So you won’t see much advocacy anymore on social media. Unfortunately, that silence contributes to the false impression that everyone is in agreement against the new school.

  • Thanks for the article. The WRT location is such a terrible site. RISD really could not have selected a worse place to put a school. I hope they come to their senses and realize how unsafe and unwalkable their site location is. And, don’t be fooled about the boundary fight. If the school is build, boundaries can be changed any time.

  • What a great article! Thank you for so clearly and thoroughly explaining these issues. It is so disheartening to see a school district plow forward with a project with such widespread opposition.

  • The White Rock Villas HOA Board of Directors voted 7-0 NOT to support a school at that site. This was after a Meeting of our homeowners, in which no one voiced support for the school at this site. I don’t know why people keep saying this is a vocal minority. If you state that you are for the school, could you please indicate whether you are now in the Proposed Boundaries for WRT? Also, being against the site doesn’t mean being against alternatives. Someone mentioned the Reflector Committee. The majority of that committee voiced support for a 5/6 school at LHJH. That wasn’t clear in the article. But this site had already been purchased and the tenants given notice to vacate before the Reflector Committee gave its recommendations.

  • Great Article! Thank you for getting this info out there. This location is not safe of anyone, children, neighbors or staff. Lake Highlands is a great place to live and raise a family. The people here have worked hard to build a true community to include everyone despite which side of the street they are on. I hope the district will listen now and trust us to know what is best for this area. It is not a school here. We moved here to be a part of this district, we want them to be a part of us for a better solution that helps all of LH.

  • Those that are against it have not presented any viable alternatives.. I suppose we are not hearing from a majority in support because the proposed rezoning for the new school only displaces those on the north side of walnut hill and along white rock trail corridor leaving the core of the neighborhood intact. Wasn’t a 5/6 grade center already shut down by the district based upon research showing disruption to learning process? Why not add on to the school? Add a story? Increase common areas? Rezone to other schools? Looking at big picture, if these kids continue on o the LHJH and LHHS, the growth there will be exponential and we should be looking at those numbers for the next 5-10 years or will be facing the same thing there.

  • Mr. Holland, why are you being so hateful to Rahul? Calling out someone and making fun of their name is completely disrespectful, counter productive, and has nothing to do with helping solve this issue. No matter what side of this issue we are on, we are all neighbors at the end of the day. Don’t let this situation ruin what makes our neighborhood such a great place to live. We need to be able to be honest with our opinions and disagree like adults, with respect for one another. Anyone who lives in the area that will be effected by a potential school at WRT & WH has a right to speak to what they feel is the best option. You wouldn’t yell and disrespect an elderly neighbor who doesn’t want a school there just because they don’t have kids at the school……

  • Thanks for supporting what is best for our children!

  • Thank you for the most comprehensive article discussing this issue yet. RISD has spent the entire year trying to get the neighborhood to accept the worst sited elementary school in the entire district. Yes, dead last. There were discussions about making the WRT site a split campus with WRE. There was talk about whether the building should be 2 or 3 stories, which was a false discussion since it was always going to be 2. RISD would need to talk to the city of Dallas to make it 3 stories, something they want to avoid at every turn. There was talk about whether the building should be brick or more glass and steel. The neighborhood didn’t really care about that. There was all kinds of boundary discussions in an attempt to divide and distract the community. There was discussion about how the WRT site may only be second worst in the district in terms of play space. RISD continues to set the bar high.

    Was there ever a discussion about WHERE this school should be? Sadly, no. RISD cites attorney privilege when dealing with land. Unfortunately, that’s the primary issue. RISD and supporters of the school continue to call it “not ideal” which is an insult to every other school built. Even more concerning, RISD only wants to affect WRE with this new school instead of helping more Lake Highlands elementary schools that are near, at, or exceeding capacity. We know a school in north Lake Highlands is coming, too, but where is the long-term planning?

    The fight to stop the school at WRT will continue. This is not over.

  • The sad fact is that RISD is a total disaster and they’re not going to get this right, even after the City of Dallas stops them from building at this site. While there are great people all over RISD at all levels, they have failed Lake Highlands for decades and it’s time to move on. Let RISD focus on Richardson and LHISD focus on Lake Highlands.

    Texas Education Code Chapter 13 provides the path for detachment. It’s time to stop expecting people who don’t care about Lake Highlands to fix things, and time to fix them on our own.