When Fort Worth voters approved $40 million for a new Visual and Performing Arts middle and high school, it was a great moment for a city proud of its arts, music and culture.
Now, the decision is where to build it.
Trustees had loosely discussed building the arts school in the Cultural District, on the parking lot behind the district’s historic Farrington Field football stadium. They have delayed that decision, partly to consider other potential sites and partly so lawyers can go over possible restrictions surrounding that property.
It’s not often that Fort Worth builds a brand-new middle or high school, much less one in the central city.
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If the corner of West Lancaster Avenue and Foch Street turns out to be the best location for the Visual and Performing Arts school and accompanying auditorium, that is a decision that should involve city and Cultural District planners and more discussion beyond a simple up-or-down board vote in the holiday season.
During the bond campaign, the Visual and Performing Arts school was championed by former Superintendent Walter Dansby as a training ground for the next generation of artists, musicians, dancers and performers from Fort Worth, continuing the tradition of actors such as Central High School alumna Ginger Rogers and musicians such as Arlington Heights High School’s John Denver or I.M. Terrell High School’s Ornette Coleman.
An arts and music school seems like a logical fit next to Fort Worth’s great museums, but it might be an expensive one.
A Lancaster Avenue school would need a design to complement the museum and retail district. Also, depending how district lawyers interpret deed restrictions limiting land use to stadium parking, the school might have to be built around and maybe even above current surface lots.
Trustees must consider whether the Visual and Performing Arts school might draw more students and have a more positive community impact at another location, maybe on district property near North University Drive, off Southeast Loop 820 near Clark Stadium, or off East Loop 820 near Dunbar High School.
The decision on where to build the Visual and Performing Arts school became more complicated last week.
Trustees decided to remodel a former elementary-middle school on Benbrook Highway and open it next fall as the other new middle-high school approved by voters: the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) Academy.
When 72 percent of voters approved $40 million for the arts school, they also approved $17 million to buy and remodel a building as the STEM Academy.
Dansby’s idea was to buy a $4.5 million downtown building and remodel it for math and science scholars.
With construction costs skyrocketing, trustees decided to adapt a current school. They looked at both the 2000-vintage Wycliff Elementary-Leonard Sixth Grade campus on Benbrook Highway, expanded and remodeled as part of a 1999 bond package, and Metro Opportunity School, an alternative school in an industrial park near downtown.
Originally promoted as a downtown technology school, the STEM Academy wound up near the Fort Worth-Benbrook border for two reasons: time and money.
Remodeling the former Wycliff-Leonard school into the STEM Academy will cost $3-$4 million, trustees were told, and it will open for sixth-graders next fall. The Metro campus near downtown would need $6-$7 million in expansion and could not be ready until 2016.
In the words of trustee Judy Needham, part of the 7-2 majority vote to move the school west: “I think what they were looking at was the money, and $3 million is a lot of money.”
Trustees, including east side trustee Tobi Jackson, also praised choosing a campus with physical education facilities and sports fields so the math-and-science scholars also get exercise.
But if the Visual and Performing Arts school is built in the Cultural District, that means both new academies will go on the west side, far from many of the voters and students supporting the schools and bond package. East side trustees Christene Moss and T.A. Sims both argued for other locations in their districts, including land near Dunbar or the now-I.M. Terrell Elementary School.
Trustees made the right choice to save money on the STEM Academy and open sooner. But a recycled suburban sixth-grade school is not what voters or students had in mind, and trustees should consider swapping the STEM Academy to a more central campus on transit lines before it becomes a high school in 2018.
If the Visual and Performing Arts school can be tailored to the Cultural District site, it would be a wonderful fit, and schoolchildren would bring both new spirit and talent. But trustees should not feel rushed into that decision.