Fort Worth

Fort Worth schools ask voters for a ‘heck of a lot of money’ to upgrade campuses

Ja’Kobe Gibbons wants to be an air traffic controller so it makes sense that he attends Dunbar High School, where the campus skyline includes an OH-58 helicopter.

“There’s is something about planes,” said the 17-year-old senior, who spends much of his day at Dunbar’s Aviation Maintenance Education Center, where students study aviation engineering and technology and are prepped to enter the workforce in a city with strong ties to the industry.

The aviation center is a full-sized hangar and its helicopter, which is mounted on a pole, has become a landmark in the Stop Six neighborhood, a proud African American community that embraces its schools, but also struggles with societal issues that plague low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Educators, parents and residents say the aviation center is a symbol of success and shows that investing in schools builds community pride and guides students along a path to success.

“It’s a sign of hope,” said Dunbar Principal SaJade Miller.

Fort Worth school district officials have described the aviation center as a “marquee project” of a 2013 bond program that invested $5 million worth of improvements at Dunbar. That comes after $7.7 million was spent on school upgrades from the 2007 bond package.

And now the district is asking voters to approve a $750 million bond package — the largest in Tarrant County history — including $33.97 million for Dunbar. The election is Nov. 7 and early voting ends Nov. 3.

The idea that struggling urban high schools — all schools, really — thrive with the latest in technology and learning environments is central to the district’s latest pitch voters.

While 77.5 percent of the bond package is dedicated to renovating the district’s 14 high schools, other money will be spent to build a new Tanglewood elementary school at a yet-to-be-named location, a new building for the Young Men’s Leadership Academy and for purchasing land for future schools.

The bond vote is being held in conjunction with a tax ratification election that would allow the school district to restructure its tax rate, a move that officials say will generate more than $23 million annually.

Voters overwhelmingly passed the bond proposals in 2007 and 2013 and district officials are hoping for similar results this time around.

The biggest question facing taxpayers: Does the financial investment actually result in stronger schools?

“The answer is a ‘yes’ and a ‘no,’ ” said Gabretta Guerin, a Dunbar graduate who has spoken out against some aspects of the bond proposal. “It is dependent on what they are spending the money on.”

Guerin is among several residents who questioned a plan to move the Young Men’s Leadership Academy closer to Dunbar. That plan also would allow the all-male public school to share athletics facilities. She and others worried the two schools would lose their individuality if they are so close.

Guerin said she also wonders how equitable the distribution of bond money will be for the district’s 14 high schools. Dunbar, for example, would get $19 million less than Arlington Heights, a number that school districts officials said it based on current needs.

But mostly, Guerin said she is concerned about core academics.

“I love the aviation center, but if the babies are not on reading level, that doesn’t matter,” Guerin said.

Bob Bland, a professor with expertise in government affairs at the University of North Texas in Denton, said Fort Worth taxpayers need to make sure the bond money is being spent where promised.

“That’s a heck of a lot of money,” Bland said, adding the taxpayers might wonder: “Could we get by with $700 million?

“It is a form of pork barrel ... but I don’t doubt some of projects have good justification,” Bland said.

Superintendent Kent Scribner said the bond will help the district maintain academic gains made since he arrived in September 2015.

“We have, I believe, achieved some success academically in early literacy, in middle-years mathematics and college and career preparedness,” Scribner said. “We believe that investing in our capital facilities will allow us to sustain that success, in fact, accelerate it.”

In 2016 the Fort Worth school district had 22 schools out of 143 that did not meet state accountability standards, That dropped to 14 in 2017, according to the Texas Education Agency.

But even with the improvements, the Texas Academic Performance Report released last week shows that only 35 percent of Fort Worth students met grade level on two or more STAAR test subjects in 2016-17. That’s up four percent from 2016, but still far behind the state average of 48 percent.

‘They don’t miss a beat’

Fort Worth’s bond package will allow the district to upgrade campuses, alleviate crowding and create more spaces for career/technical learning for a district with more than 86,000 students.

At the high schools, the money will be used to modernize spaces at each high school to offer “foundation” career/technical programs in arts, STEM, robotics, business/marketing and teaching and learning. Career and technical programs served more than 19,000 students last school year and CTE students passed 836 certification exams, which allow them to work in an array of fields, from nursing to the food industry.

School district officials say the projects included in the 2017 bond will build on improvements made in the 2007 ($593.6 million) and 2013 ($490 million) bond packages.

In 2007, the district spent $26 million on technology enhancements. Most of the technology dollars, $22 million, were spent on interactive whiteboards for 5,000 classrooms, a move that signaled Fort Worth’s commitment to digital learning.

That bond package was critical for the district to re-establish credibility and voter confidence after a disastrous bond program in 1999 was beset by a construction and billing scandal that cost the district almost $16 million and sent two men — a contractor and school district administrator — to federal prison.

In 2013, $13.87 million was spent to provide laptops for all high school students. Another $102 million was dedicated for various technology projects.

District officials say it’s critical to keep up with advancements in technology and trends in education.

In today’s classroom, students write on desks and walls with “writeable surfaces” — similar to dry erase boards — as they figure out math or science problems. Desks and chairs aren’t static in today’s classrooms, but instead are easily moved to create learning spaces where students can brainstorm and work together to solve problems.

“Teaching is no longer about one teacher standing before a classroom of 25 students. It is one teacher engaging collaboratively with five groups of five students,” Scribner said.

Upgraded technology throughout a campus, such as expanded Wi-Fi, makes learning possible anywhere — including outdoor classrooms.

And the whiteboards and laptops? They’re still clicking.

The interactive whiteboards used by teachers can be accessed via laptops used by students.

Ashley Reynoso, who teaches Calculus and pre-Calculus at Arlington Heights, said she first thought the interactive whiteboard would be a “glorified dry erase board.”

However, Reynoso uses the interactive board everyday to pull information from the internet, stream video or display work from her computer on a larger screen. She said she can save class notes so that students can access them from their tablets.

“They don’t miss a beat,” Reynoso said.

North Side: ‘It just gives them a chance’

Taxpayers can get a sense of how much has been invested in high schools by looking at projects approved in 2007 and 2013 bonds, and those proposed this year.

For example, at North Side High School, north of downtown Fort Worth, the three bonds total about $57.5 million in projects. Bond investments at Dunbar total about $51.7 million, while investments at Arlington Heights, located in west Fort Worth, add up to $68 million.

At North Side, the district spent $17.8 million to add a culinary wing complete with classrooms, food prep areas and a makeshift restaurant setting that allows the students to cater campus events.

“Before the new building came, we had a portable [building], where we knocked down a wall in between so it was kind of a one room building — that’s where our culinary kitchen was,” said North Side Principal Antonio Martinez. “We ran about that time, about 200 kids in and out of that program.”

About 400 culinary students at North Side used to practice their craft in portable buildings before the new classrooms were built.

“We started out in a little portable, out back, we only had two service units,” said Kim Church, culinary arts teacher at North Side. “You can see today that each child can have their own stove. They learn to use all the different equipment. It just gives them a chance, an opportunity, to see if this is something they want to do for a career.”

In the current proposed bond, North Side would get a robotics lab for students taking “Principles of Engineering,” Martinez said, pointing out that they currently build their projects in a room that looks more like a walk-in pantry. North Side would also get renovations to the fine arts classroom and a new rehearsal hall for its nationally recognized and award-winning mariachi program. North Side’s mariachi program serves more than 200 students.

Mariela Ramirez, a 17-year-old senior who plays the violin in the mariachi program, said more space will allow more students to participate in the music program.

“I think we really need it,” she said of the plans, adding the mariachi program is the campus “pride and joy.”

Heights: ‘Space challenged in every way’

At Arlington Heights, a fine arts program offers jewelry making classes to about 130 students. An agricultural program serves more than 200 students.

The 2017 bond proposal would give students more space to perfect their skills.

“We are space challenged in every way,” said Arlington Heights Principal Sarah Weeks, adding that the school has teachers who are called “floaters” because they don’t have home classrooms.

The campus, which has 1,950 students, is known for its “Creative Heights” programs that include the jewelry making classes.

“We need more space — newer materials,” said Brooke Jenkins, a 16-year-old junior.

Outside the main building in portable classrooms, agricultural teacher Cody Davenport said he needs more room for students who are planning to be tomorrow’s bio tech experts, food safety specialists and ranchers.

“We are growing and expanding,” Davenport said, pointing to a greenhouse and quail coop that students use for projects.

The 2007 bond brought Arlington Heights $7.3 million worth of upgrades, including new wiring, dataports for classrooms, telephone handsets, public address system equipment, projectors and the interactive whiteboards. Those 2007 bond dollars also addressed safety and security needs, including smoke detectors and surveillance cameras.

The 2013 bond program provided Heights $8.2 million in improvements, from a new public address system to digital HVAC controls to classroom computers.

Construction work paid by the 2013 bond is ongoing at Heights, where a new kitchen and cafeteria are being built. The new cafeteria space will include a coffee bar. Work is also underway on new classroom space, a new field house for female athletes and tennis courts.

“The bond ... is going to help us produce kids who are ready ... when they come out of Arlington Heights,” Weeks said.

Dunbar: ‘Already turning a corner’

At Dunbar, bond improvements are just part of the story of trying to build success. The campus aims to lift academics with an Early College High School program with Texas Wesleyan University and a $10 million federal grant for schools trying to maintain student achievement after struggling in the past.

During the 2013-2014 school year, Dunbar was listed as needing improvement by the state. But it has met the state standard the last three years and last year excelled in math.

As part of the 2017 bond proposal, Dunbar’s career/technical learning areas would be renovated. Its automotive and cosmetology learning spaces, science classrooms would also get revamped. The library would get an expansion.

That comes as welcome news to students and parents.

“I feel like they should invest in all the high schools,” said Gibbons, the aviation student.

While most schools in Fort Worth have made modest academic gains in the past year — Arlington Heights, Dunbar and North Side were rated “met standard” in the 2017 state accountability reports — that’s just part of the payoff for investing in public schools, said Andy Canales, director of research for Children at Risk, a statewide advocacy group for disadvantaged students.

He said focus groups show that families measure school successes in many ways.

“The number one thing they talk about is extracurricular activities: band, chorus, sports,” Canales said.

Douglas Redwine, a parent who participates in Dads for Dunbar, said he has noticed positive changes at Dunbar. Spirit signs don’t get vandalized, families make donations, and trash doesn’t litter the campus.

Miller, the principal, said a recent open house drew 300 parents instead of just the few that once was the norm.

“I think we are already turning a corner,” Redwine said.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

Bond proposal and Penny Swap election

There are two propositions on the Nov. 7 ballot for voters in the Fort Worth school district

Proposition A

The proposition is known as a “Penny Swap” or tax rate authorization election.

The ratification would let the school district restructure its tax rate and move 2 cents from one tax pool to another — it’s called a tax swap — which district officials say will generate more than $23 million annually, including a boost in state funding.

Voting, “yes” won’t increase taxes by 2 cents because the overall tax rate of $1.352 per $100 is not changing. The overall tax rate has two sides: Maintenance and operation ($1.04) and debt service (31.2 cents). Under the ratification, the tax pools would change to $1.06 and 29.2 cents, respectively.

Proposition B

The second issue on the ballot is an estimated $750 million bond program. Here are some highlights from the bond package:

$52.1 million

New elementary school serving families in the current Tanglewood boundary, additions to the existing Tanglewood Elementary, land purchase for future schools, renovation to Waverly Park Elementary.

$40.8 million

Relocation of specialized schools, including the Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences, World Language Institute and Young Men’s Leadership Academy.

$581 million

Renovations to the district’s 14 comprehensive high schools, including learning spaces for career/technical education, classroom additions, robotics labs, collaborative learning spaces, fine arts renovations and athletic improvements.

$67 million

This portion of the total bond program is built in for contingency spending such as architetural fees or third-party consultants.

What’s the impact on your tax rate?

School district officials said that the bond package would not require a tax rate increase because of soaring property values.

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