West Independent School District voters will decide Tuesday whether they want to approve a $21.5 million bond package that would replace the district’s only elementary school, a year after voters rejected a similar bond.

If approved, the bond package would accomplish the final project in rebuilding the district six years after a fertilizer plant explosion devastated the town of almost 2,900. The district opened a new 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 that killed 15 people in April 2013. 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 blast 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.

Nicole Nemec, a substitute teacher and a member of the Yes for West Kids political action committee, said the elementary school simply is too small for all of the students and too outdated for their safety.

“Our kids deserve it,” Nemec said. “We have people coming in from all over to come to West ISD. We’re overcrowded. We are busting at the seams.”

When her daughter broke her leg about two years ago and had to use a wheelchair, Nemec had to withdraw her daughter from the school because the classrooms and bathrooms did not have the space or meet the specifications to accommodate a wheelchair, she said.

The new school would be about 81,000-square feet with 35 classrooms, enough space for roughly 750 students. West ISD is working to buy 30 acres behind the new high school and athletics facilities so all the schools will be together.

West Elementary rendering

A rendering shows designs for a new West Elementary School the district plans to build with the recently passed $21.5 million bond package.

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.

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.

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.

West Mayor Tommy Muska said the city greatly needs this new elementary school as the town is “poised to have an abundance” of residential lots for sale, which means more families moving into the area with their children.

“We’re almost back to where we were before,” he said, referring to the 2013 explosion. “Having a new elementary school will only help those potential citizens who may want to return, to return.”

West Elementary rendering

A rendering shows designs for a new West Elementary School the district plans to build with the recently passed $21.5 million bond package.

Nemec, who has four children in the elementary school, said the school is so old it lacks an alarm and sprinkler system, so in case of a fire or other emergency the intercom system is used, as well as a bright red metal bell that hangs on the wall near the entrance.

Aside from safety, overcrowding is another issue a new school would address, she said. There are only two bathrooms for the 66 employees in the building, and kindergartners go to lunch at 10:15 because there is not enough room in the cafeteria for more than one grade level at a time.

“That’s still breakfast time for some,” Nemec said.

Both Nemec and Muska agree that now is the time for West ISD residents to step up and take care of the district’s youngest students. The cost will only go up if this bond fails, Muska said.

“It’s no longer a question of if we need a school. We have to have a school,” Nemec said. “It’s inevitable. It’s just a matter of when.”

For more information on the bond package and where to vote, visit www.bondissueinfo.com/westisdbond2019.

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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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