West Independent School District officials hope to accomplish the final project in rebuilding the district after a fertilizer plant explosion devastated the town six years ago, calling for a $21.5 million bond election this November, a year after a similar one failed.

The $21.5 million bond package would replace West Elementary School, which was built in 1952 and no longer has the capacity to handle the school’s enrollment, Principal Carrie Kazda said.

West ISD is working on purchasing 30 acres behind the new high school and athletic facilities so there can be “one home for all the Trojans,” Superintendent David Truitt said. The new school would be about 81,000 square feet with 35 classrooms, enough space for roughly 750 students.

“We’ve outgrown this campus,” Kazda said. “The overcrowding causes a multitude of issues. It hurts with arrival and dismissal, but then it affects behavior, too. It’s hard to get everyone through the hall in an orderly manner.”

If voters approve the referendum, West ISD’s tax rate would increase by 18 cents to $1.37 per $100 valuation. That would add about $247 a year in taxes for the average homeowner in West ISD, whose home has a taxable value of $137,379, according to the McLennan County Appraisal District.

Truitt said West ISD is in a much better financial position this year to acquire bond debt. The bond package voters rejected last year would have increased the tax rate by 24 cents and cost the average West ISD homeowner about $304 more a year in property taxes.

“West is getting back on its feet,” he said.

In 2018, voters rejected a $20 million bond issue that would have built a new, 80,000-square-foot elementary school. The bond package failed by 61 votes. The school would have been the last major project for West ISD since the fertilizer plant explosion in April 2013 that killed 15 people. The district opened the new high school and middle school facility in 2016.

West Elementary School currently serves students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, which is an additional two grade levels than before the blast, Truitt said. The school used to serve prekindergarten through third grade, and an intermediate school served fourth and fifth grades.

“Following the explosion, everything got moved back together because the intermediate school burned down,” Truitt said. “We’ve got seven full grade levels now, and as the years pass from the explosion, families are returning and our enrollment is going up.”

West Elementary School added 78 students in the past three years, placing enrollment at 597 students, Truitt said. The school has 29 classrooms.

Before the blast in 2013, the campus had 405 students, according to the Texas Education Agency. That number jumped up to 579 for the 2014-2015 school year, when the two other grade levels were added to the campus.

“You would think it’s the age of the building, but we’re not even discussing that because our administration building is from 1923, and it’s wonderful,” Truitt said. “It’s not age. It’s about lack of room and space.”

Kazda said the school simply was not built to hold so many children. The hallways are too narrow for students to pass each other, and the gym, cafeteria and library are so small that staff has to be strategic about planning which classes go where and when.

Another concern is security, Kazda said. Students often have to walk in and out of buildings several times a day for physical education and music classes. The school also lacks an alarm and sprinkler system because it is so old, but it does have a bright red bell that hangs on the wall near the entrance that can be rung by hand in case of emergencies.

“West is getting back on its feet,” Truitt said. “We’re blessed. Our families have been patient and understanding. Our kids are so resilient. We say we’re the district of grit and greatness because I firmly believe a lot of districts would not have survived what we did.”

Truitt said it would be more cost-effective to build a new school than to renovate the current elementary school, given its age. Adding portable buildings is not an option either because that would require encroaching on the students’ playground area and the parking lot, he said. The district cannot expand the campus because it is surrounded by houses, businesses and Interstate 35.

“We know right now it’s a tough time to be asking for a bond, but we feel the need is there and we have the community support,” Truitt said. “We’ve listened. We’ve done our best to answer every question from the previous bond project.”

The West ISD school board unanimously approved the $21.5 million bond election Aug. 15 and hired Claycomb Associates Architects firm.

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Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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