Arlington school board members could take action as soon as Thursday on a plan to use $22.5 million in district funds to “right-size” Sam Houston High School.
The high school on Arlington’s east side has a building capacity of 3,225 students and an enrollment this fall of 3,718 students. The expansion, which was discussed at the board’s Oct. 22 meeting, would create a dedicated ninth-grade center within the campus and replace a cafeteria and kitchen that administrators say is too small. It would also increase available classrooms in the building. The campus currently has 18 classrooms in portable buildings.
Arlington school district voters approved a $663.1 million bond package in 2014 that includes the construction of multipurpose activity centers at each of the district’s six traditional high schools, as well as a districtwide career and technical center that will pull about 150 students from each of the high schools at any given time. In part, those projects were intended to relieve potential crowding at the six high schools. Forecasts before the bond election showed that all six high schools were full, but not so full that a new high school was needed, said Cindy Powell, the district’s chief financial officer.
“The solutions we developed were districtwide solutions, and since then Sam Houston’s enrollment has continued to outpace our projections,” Powell said. She said students are transferring out of the school less often than in the past, in large part because of positive changes that have come under the leadership of Principal Fernando Benavides.
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“The campus administration at Sam Houston is doing some very good things, and that is part of why we have that growing enrollment,” she said.
Though trustees hasn’t made any decisions on the project, the district could use $5.5 million in leftover funds from a 2009 bond program along with surplus money from its general fund to finance the expansion, Powell said. The district has surplus funds of $87.2 million that have been carried over from previous years and aren’t committed for any use.
Board members seemed enthusiastic about moving forward with a plan. The proposed project could be completed as soon as fall 2017, Powell said.
“It’s a lot of money, but we have to get this campus right-sized, period,” said Trustee John Hibbs. “We owe it to our students. We owe it to that community and we’ve got to get it right-sized.”
Some board members also asked for more information from staff, in particular about the price tag associated with the changes. Polly Walton, a board member and retired teacher, asked how the proposal compared to similar “right-sizing” projects at Lamar and Arlington high schools. Those construction projects were part of the district’s 2009 bond program.
“I fully understand the need for what we’re talking about here and for doing what is needed for our kids. I do believe in that, but I will tell you I’m suffering a little bit of sticker shock with the price,” said Walton.
Walton also wanted to learn more about the creation of “teacher planning areas” for ninth-grade teachers. The planning areas are large open spaces with stations for teachers to work during their conference time. That would leave their classrooms open to be used for other classes during planning times, increasing the use of existing space.
“I’m excited about this project. I think it’s time that we right-sized Sam Houston High School — I have no problem with that. I just want to be sure that we’re getting it right,” Walton said.
Administrators have been formulating possible responses to the growth at Sam Houston since this summer. Huckabee Architects developed the vision with the $22.5 price tag. It would make room for 500 additional students. In addition to the ninth-grade center and larger cafeteria, the plan adds eight science labs.
Sam Houston is the district’s only Title I high school, which means it receives additional funds from the federal government because of its high percentage of low-income students. Almost 85 percent of the student body qualifies for free and reduced-rate lunches. Powell said that high percentage of low-income students, as well as the lack of restaurants nearby, makes having an accessible cafeteria even more important. The campus also has a large breakfast program.
At the board meeting Thursday, administrators will ask the board to approve the commitment of $17.1 million in general fund money for the project. Then, design work can begin, Powell said.