Some of West’s youngest residents could be getting a new place to learn if voters approve a $20 million bond this spring to build a new elementary school, West Independent School District superintendent David Truitt said.
The new school would provide enough space to get students out of the three portable building in use now, and a new location would alleviate traffic issues created by the current school’s proximity to Interstate 35, officials said.
Election Day is May 5, and early voting starts April 23. Voters have until April 5 to register for the election.
About 200 fourth- and fifth-graders moved to the elementary school after the district’s intermediate school was destroyed in the fertilizer plant explosion almost five years ago that killed 15 people and injured hundreds.
The move was originally supposed to be temporary, Truitt said. The school was built in 1952 and has not had any major renovations.
Now, more than 530 students attend the 52,000-square-foot campus with three portable buildings, and space is tight, Principal Cari Detlefsen said.
Space creates constraints, but the biggest issue is the school’s location on the town’s main street and less than a full block off the I-35 access road, Truitt said. Each school day starts and ends with a coordinated effort between city and school officials to prevent traffic hang ups and emergency situations, Detlefsen said. Sometimes, it requires major changes to traffic flow, she said.
“The struggle with the site isn’t just about how old it is and how it’s not what we want instructionally,” Truitt said. “It sits right on the busiest interstate in America and it’s a stone’s throw right there. We have people stop by, we have people come to the door. From a safety standpoint, I guess what I’m trying to say on that is, if I had to rank … No. 1. … I can paint it, I can redo the playground, I can add parking, but I can’t change the fact it’s yards from I-35. That concerns us and concerns our parents.”
Other issues include ongoing plumbing issues, wiring with old, screw-in fuses, roof leaks, energy efficiency, wireless connectivity and transportation in and out of campus, Truitt said. The campus also only has three bathrooms to share between all students, he said.
With those concerns in mind, the district surveyed a group of 64 community members, staff, parents and business leaders in the fall on whether to go for a bond. Only four voted no, Truitt said.
“What an overwhelming mandate from folks to say,’Hey, let’s go for this,’ ” Truitt said.
Concerned taxpayers have raised questions about the project increasing taxes at a time when West ISD is already doing projects throughout the district.
The district opened a $52 million high school and middle school facility in 2016 that it paid for with money from insurance payouts related to the explosion and with money from the Texas Education Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The district has already converted a school built in 1923 into an administration building. It is converting the old administration building into an alternative school and building a new athletics complex. It has also converted an old gym into a maintenance building.
“I completely understand the need for a new elementary school. What I have a problem with is spending money for new baseball, softball, football and track fields and then telling the tax payers to pay more taxes for a 20 million dollar elementary school,” West resident Carol Waddell wrote on the district’s Facebook page. “If all the money spent for sports fields had been put toward the elementary school, the number would be less. Why does an elementary school cost $20 million??”
Most of the other projects have already been taken care of, and the new athletics complex is being paid for with a 2012 bond, Truitt responded on Facebook. Bond money, once approved by voters, cannot legally be used for anything other than what it was originally designated for, he wrote.
The $20 million bond would cover an 80,000-square-foot building to serve 700 to 750 pre-K through fifth-grade students, Truitt said. The district has not bought land for the project yet and it is still working to finalize a contract with PBK Architects before starting design work, Truitt said.
Truitt will be meeting with some of the concerned residents Monday. After that meeting, the district will launch a website with more details about how the $20 million would be used. It will also hold several community meetings next month to address other concerns before the election.
If the bond passes, the district will try to sell the current elementary school in hopes a business would move in and add to the town’s growing economy, Truitt said.
“The biggest thing I would like for voters to think about and consider is our current West Elementary Trojans and future Trojans. We face obstacles on a daily basis due to the constraints set forth by our current location,” Detlefsen said. “Our goal in West ISD and at West Elementary is to meet the needs of the 21st century learner, and current facilities hinder that process. Please remember that this is a decision that will impact multiple generations to come.”