By Joshua Benton
At some schools, teachers know all the students. At Burnet Elementary, teachers don’t even know all the teachers.
About 1,550 students crowd into Burnet to learn everything from their colors to multiplication tables in prekindergarten through fifth grade. The northwest Dallas school was designed for about half that number. What used to be a playground is now a long line of portable classrooms on concrete islands.
The extraordinary has become dishearteningly ordinary: lining up during a scheduled five-minute slot to use the bathroom; eating lunch at 10:15 a.m.; attending assemblies in four shifts; learning to read in the same classroom where fifth-graders are holding play practice.
“The only thing the whole school does together is fire drill,” principal Judith Meyer said. “That’s not normal, is it? By now it all seems pretty normal here.”
Burnet has the largest population of elementary students in the Dallas district, and its overcrowding and varying levels of disrepair are evident in the main building and 23 portable buildings. The conditions are what Superintendent Mike Moses, the man pushing the $1.37 billion bond vote Jan. 19, means when he says the district is “hemorrhaging.”
More than 40,000 students attend class in portable classrooms, some of which are 40 years old. Five elementary schools are at 200 percent capacity or more. Eighty-three percent of schools are in need of critical roofing repairs. The list goes on.
For at least the last decade, Dallas school leaders have had little trouble identifying their facility problems. They have, however, struggled to fix them.
Mistakes of the past
Some reasons, such as the continuing population boom, have been beyond the district’s control. But current and former school leaders say the magnitude of the problem is linked partly to mistakes of the past – management instability that made a bond package politically impossible for too long and years of deferred maintenance that now contributes to $414.1 million in critically needed renovation.
“It’s always easy to second guess, and I hesitate to do it,” Dr. Moses said. “But obviously if things had been done differently five or 10 or 15 years ago, we’d be in a better situation today.”
If a man suddenly grew to twice his proper size, the strain on his body would be easy to see at certain stress points. The same is true of a school: Burnet Elementary is barely 40 years old, but the wear and tear makes it look older.
“You can only push the button on the water fountain so many times before the spring goes,” said Ms. Meyer.
High-traffic grassy areas have been reduced to dirt and mud by thousands of kids’ sneakers. Plumbing and air-conditioning systems are more prone to break down because of the burden they’re under. The roof is a quilt of orange, brown, and tan repair patches.
The extra wear on Burnet and other schools has been exacerbated in some cases by the district’s reduction in maintenance spending over the years – a decision not unusual across the country as districts cope with rising fixed costs such as electricity and teacher salaries.
Still, when the state comptroller’s office issued its performance review of the school district in June, one of its biggest complaints was about Dallas’ poor record of maintaining its $4 billion worth of buildings.
According to the review, the district’s maintenance budget has declined 17 percent in the last four years. During the same period, the number of students went up 13,000, and the square footage in buildings increased 3 percent.
Former trustees say the board decided over the years to cut maintenance in favor of other priorities, such as higher teacher salaries and smaller classes.
“It was a conscious decision,” said former trustee Kathlyn Gilliam, a board member from 1974 to 1997. “We didn’t have the money. You can defer for only so long. Then it catches up with you.”
Miguel Ramos, associate superintendent for auxiliary services, said the maintenance department has been making do with little for years.
“We’ve been fixing things with bailing wire and duct tape when we have to,” Mr. Ramos said. “Our staff has done a lot with little.”
The comptroller’s report also criticized the district for lacking a program of preventive maintenance, measures that might stop little problems from turning into big ones. District officials say an outside firm has just finished a facilities inventory, and a preventive maintenance program should be in place within a year.
The bathrooms at Burnet can’t handle the onslaught of so many students at one time, so each class is assigned two five-minute periods per day – one each in the morning and afternoon. Exceptions are made for emergencies, Ms. Meyer added, because “you can’t put kindergartners on a clock.”
No place to plug it in
Burnet now has more than 70 teachers. Not all fit in the teacher’s lounge. If one wants to brew coffee, the microwave oven must first be unplugged. A much-needed photocopier has been delayed because there’s no place to plug it in.
Only students up to second grade attend class in the main building. Others walk outside to their portable classrooms. A covered walkway protects them from the rain but only if there’s little wind.
The student body outgrew the cafeteria long ago, and many eat in a satellite cafeteria, where food is rolled over from the main kitchen in heated carts.
Lunch comes close on the heels of breakfast. The first shift starts at 10:15 a.m. There’s not nearly enough room for all the food needed for 1,550 hungry children.
“That’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” cafeteria manager Cheryl Irabo said, pointing to a pile of tomato sauce cans stacked on a milk crate in her office. They should be on shelves farther away from the floor. “That’s something the health department could write us up for. But we just don’t have the room.”
She’s looking for a way to keep chocolate and white milk available for the children, but her limited refrigerator space might be the end of one of them.
Burnet already was bursting at the seams in 1992, when Dallas passed its last bond package, for $275 million. At the time, school leaders knew the district’s needs easily amounted to $400 million, but they didn’t think voters would agree.
Officials also expected another bond issue to be approved in five years or so, as had been the pattern in DISD’s history.
But when the late-1990s arrived, the district was engulfed in so much turmoil – the public was soured on racial tension and management instability – that approval of another bond package was deemed out of the question.
Many of the facilities’ needs identified as far back as the 1980s have gone unmet since then. Now, because of explosive growth, the lack of a bond issue, and deferred maintenance, there’s such a backlog that not even $1.37 billion will fix it all.
Eager for relief
The total need, officials say, tops $1.8 billion, and Dr. Moses already speaks of another bond election in five years.
“Obviously, it would have been helpful if the 1992 bond issue had been larger,” Dr. Moses said.
“Most of those who look back on it now wish that. And it would have been helpful if the board had brought forth another referendum in the mid- to late-1990s. But it probably was not feasible politically.”
The effects of facilities problems aren’t purely physical. It’s difficult to lure teachers into working under such conditions. Teachers at Burnet say it’s harder to control kids in such a big school, and small-group learning sessions are tougher to put together. Arranging use of the library or the auditorium also is a hassle.
“Anything you do takes so much effort,” said counselor Anne Holley. “Somebody else is always using what you want to use.”
“It’s kind of like the saying, it takes a village to raise a child,” said teacher Patsy Vancill. “Well, we need a smaller village.”
For the most part, Ms. Meyer said, Burnet’s students seem oblivious to the conditions. Many of them have seen much worse. Most are recent immigrants from Mexico or Central America, and more than 70 percent have difficulty speaking English. Ninety-seven percent are poor. Only 39.3 percent passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills last year.
“They don’t know the school is crowded,” Ms. Meyer said. “They’re by and large happy with school – in comparison to what they’ve had before.”
Ask children if they’d like to see new schools built in the neighborhood, and they shout: “No!”
“They can keep putting more kids in here, because it means there are more who can be your friend,” said Blanca Gonzalez, 11.
But if voters approve the bond package next month, two new elementary schools will eventually go up in the Bachman Lake neighborhood around Burnet.
Teachers look forward to the relief, but they know Burnet won’t suddenly become a one-room schoolhouse. Teachers who have been there close to 20 years don’t remember having fewer than 1,000 students.
After the 1992 bond election, DISD built Saldivar Elementary just south of Burnet. It opened in 1996 with 1,091 students, and Burnet’s enrollment dropped from 1,602 to 1,247.
“It didn’t really help,” said physical education teacher Mary Ramirez. “I didn’t see much of an impact. It was still a big school.”
Five years later, Saldivar has more than 1,300 students. Burnet is nearly back to its pre-Saldivar size.
If two more relief schools go up, Burnet’s enrollment might drop by 500 students or so. But in the take time it would take for new schools to be built, Burnet’s enrollment might go up by another 200 or more; except for 1996, it has grown by about 80 students a year since 1993.
“But if we don’t get these new schools, the numbers are just going to keep climbing higher and higher,” said Ms. Holley.
With all the difficulties and mistakes in the DISD over the last decade, school leaders hope to convince the public that old problems won’t recur.
Dr. Moses has said he is committed to putting the district on track toward regular bond packages and increased maintenance spending.
“I can make it sound easy and say things are going to get better right away,” said Larry Groppel, the deputy superintendent who is overseeing the bond package and maintenance reforms. “But where the rubber meets the road, it’s going to be a challenge.”
At least one close observer said the district’s past sins are almost beside the point.
“You can sit around and point fingers all you want,” said Betty Ressel, manager of the team that assembled the comptroller’s review of the DISD. “But the bottom line is that they’re in this condition, and for them to get a fresh start, they’re going to have to spend a lot of money.”