When West Independent School District Superintendent David Truitt announced to the district’s elementary school students that they would get a new school, many asked him if it would be ready that day.
Truitt told them no, they would have to wait. But they likely are not the only impatient ones.
West ISD has waited more than six years to rebuild what many in the city consider to be the final project in repairing the town of about 2,900 that was devastated by a fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 that killed 15 people.
A year after a similar referendum failed, West ISD voters approved the $21.5 million bond package Nov. 5 to build a new elementary school campus adjacent to the new high school and middle school complex on Jerry Mashek Drive.
In 2018, the $20 million bond issue that would have built a new, 80,000-square-foot elementary school failed by 61 votes.
Tommy Muska, who has been West mayor since 2012, said the passage of the bond issue and the building of a new elementary school will benefit both the city and the school district. It is expected to be open in time for the 2022-2023 school year.
“The citizens of West and the city itself has recovered with great strides in the six and a half years since the explosion,” Muska said. “This is the last of the puzzle pieces for West ISD to build a brand new campus.”
The bond package will accomplish the final project in rebuilding the district after the West Fertilizer Co. went up in flames on April 17, 2013. Just 22 minutes after the West Volunteer Fire Department received its first 9-1-1 call of the night, the ammonium nitrate stored at the site exploded at 7:51 p.m. — a time everyone in town knows. The explosion turned the sky black and shook the ground, registering a 2.1-magnitude earthquake felt as far as 50 miles away.
The explosion killed 12 first responders and three residents. It destroyed the intermediate, middle and high schools, and it left a 12-foot-deep crater behind. It forever changed the town known for its kolaches and strong Czech culture.
But at some point, recovery becomes more about moving forward than looking back and remembering, said the Rev. John Crowder of the First Baptist Church of West, who helped lead the immediate relief efforts.
Crowder said the construction of a new elementary school will be one of the final infrastructure projects the city and school district needs to move forward and to function.
“It’s a relief. It’s freeing because it allows us to start looking forward instead of still looking back,” he said. “For over six years, we’ve looked back at one event, and we’ve tried to figure out what do we do now. Once we get this finished, then we’re ready to look forward.”
The district opened the combined high school and middle school facility in 2016.
Built in 1952, West Elementary School currently serves students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, which is two more grade levels than before the blast. The school used to serve prekindergarten through third grade, and an intermediate school served fourth and fifth grades. The explosion changed the grade configuration because it destroyed the intermediate school.
Current enrollment at the school is 597 students. Before the explosion in 2013, the campus had 405 students, according to the Texas Education Agency website. That number jumped up to 579 for the 2014-15 school year, when the two other grade levels were added to the campus.
The new school would be about 81,000 square feet with 35 classrooms, enough space for roughly 750 students. West ISD is finalizing the purchase of 30 acres behind the new high school and athletics facilities so all the schools will be together, Truitt said.
“It’s just another piece in the rebuilding and the future of West,” Truitt said, “and the current and future generations of kids will benefit greatly from this decision.”
West ISD’s tax rate will increase by 18 cents to $1.37 per $100 valuation as the result of the bonds. That will 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.
The school district now must prepare for the process of new construction, including meeting with architects, deciding on construction managers and finalizing design documents. West ISD plans to sell the old elementary school.
Larry Sparks, a dentist and the school board president, served on the board during the time of the explosion. He said the immediate goal then was simply to get students back in school, which required the use of temporary structures and buildings opened up to West students by other school districts.
“The explosion happened on a Wednesday night right before 8 o’clock — it was 7:51 — and we lost three out of four campuses,” Crowder said. “That Monday morning, every one of our kids were in school.”
Sparks said the intermediate goal after getting students back in school was to rebuild the middle and high schools. The district sent intermediate school students to the elementary campus, where they have stayed for more than six years.
“For the most part, folks over there have just been incredibly patient in a very overcrowded setting,” Crowder said, “but we’re glad now that soon they won’t have to endure that overcrowded setting anymore.”
West expects to see quite a bit of residential growth in the next 10 years, Muska said. The city is finishing up the last of its infrastructure projects, while multiple residential developments are in the works within the city and school district boundaries. The city council recently approved a bid to rebuild and repave a seven-block section of Marable Street, which will complete the repairs on the north side of town, where the plant exploded.
“This happened on my watch,” Muska said. “The city is in good shape, and it’s moving forward. It’s been a journey, but I just felt I needed to complete this on my watch and ride off into the sunset someday.”
It is unclear when that sun will set for the mayor. The new elementary school will not be open for another three years, but the city has nearly completed the physical recovery of the town. West received insurance and government aid to help build $12 million in new street and utility infrastructure and $52 million in new schools. The blast destroyed more than 100 homes and a nursing home, all of which have been rebuilt.
Near the new homes in the blast zone is a shiny, new plastic playground and sports area named Parker’s Park, after the young son of fallen firefighter Joey Pustejovsky. A memorial to the fallen has been erected across the street from the park, where the names and faces of the dead lay engraved in granite and an eternal flame sits atop a water fountain.
“This is the final step to put everything back the way that it needs to be,” Crowder said. “The school is going to be wonderful, and it’s going to benefit the city, as well as the district. It’s going to benefit our youngest students. Anytime you put people in an overcrowded situation, you’re going to have an increase in conflict and a decrease in productivity. Now, we don’t have to worry about that.”