Lesson learned in DISD; After last bond, officials stress that needs for money may change

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 11A

When it was still on the drawing board, the campus of Townview Center was the finest top sirloin. By the time it opened in 1995, the campus had lost some of its sizzle.

The Oak Cliff school, built with bond money approved by voters in 1992, saw its budget shrink from $44million at planning to $35.1 million at construction. That meant cutting about 61,000 square feet from the floor plans. Gone were the oversize classrooms, the 60-seat planetarium, and the separate building for a technology school.

“We had to cut out a lot of things that would have helped kids,” said Grady Jennings, the building’s architect throughout the process. “The reason’s pretty simple: money.”

Those cutbacks hold a lesson for voters, as they prepare to decide on the Dallas school district’s $1.37 billion ballot proposal: You don’t always get what you expect from a bond issue. Costs go up. Construction problems pop up. Money runs out. Especially in a project so massive, needs are certain to change.

Superintendent Mike Moses and trustees have stressed that their plan for spending the next round of bond money is open to change well after voters go to the polls Saturday. Most notably, officials say, the location of new schools will be reassessed periodically through the five or six years of the program.

“It’s difficult to exactly predict where students are going to be, and we might need to change our plans if circumstances and enrollments change,” Dr. Moses said.

District leaders also have stressed that the bond money will be managed differently this time to avoid some of the problems that hampered the 1992 program.

The 1992 program was managed by the district’s facilities bond program department, with the help of an outside consultant. This time, the district plans to have an outside firm oversee the entire project and will appoint a citizens review committee to serve as a watchdog and help prioritize the work.

“We will have people watching us, and we know that, so we are going to make sure this project is as well-managed as it can be,” Dr. Moses said.

For the most part, the 1992 bond program was carried out as billed. Each of 15 promised new schools was built, plus one additional unplanned school, Cesar Chavez Learning Center. Often, however, schools went up with smaller budgets and smaller floor plans.

“All of the projects in the original program were carried out,” said Kathlyn Gilliam, a trustee from 1974 to 1997. “Some just weren’t carried out to the degree we initially hoped.”

Former trustee John Dodd agreed: “A host of things that were promised didn’t get done.”

The reasons for curtailed work started with cost overruns, some of which were beyond the district’s control.

Unexpected asbestos costs pulled nearly $500,000 from the bond issue’s contingency fund. That, along with other unexpected costs, meant that more than $12 million of the $14 million contingency fund had been spent by 1995, when only one new school had been completed. That necessitated further small cuts in many other schools’ renovation and construction plans.

Overruns also meant the district had to use $8 million from its regular operating budget for items that were supposed to be covered by the bond, such as rewiring classrooms, building a school addition, and paying the salaries of bond project staff.

The Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center wasn’t the only school affected by the overruns. Molina High, for example, lost more than $2.1 million from its budget and more than 13,000 square feet from its floor plan.

Inflation also affected execution of the package, which coincided with the North Texas construction boom of the mid-1990s. As contractors were kept busy by prison, highway, and housing construction, bid prices went up on schools. Other growing area districts, including Plano and Lewisville, had similar cost problems during the same period.

But there also were management issues. In 1993, the district replaced the bond project’s main overseer less than a year after hiring him. By the following year, seven of the 11 planned renovation projects were behind schedule. In 1995, trustees temporarily froze all new spending of bond money to examine cost overruns. At the time, more than half of the bond program’s 27 projects were behind schedule.

“There were some problems, and money was tighter than expected,” Ms. Gilliam said.

Michael Gonzales, deputy district director for the League of United Latin American Citizens of North Texas, said Hispanic leaders will be watching to be sure similar problems don’t reoccur.

“Last time around, funds were not invested as we were told they would be, and many of our schools still have dilapidated facilities,” Mr. Gonzales said. “We want to make sure there are safeguards implemented to prevent it from happening again.”

DISD officials say such safeguards will be in place, including the citizens review committee. Dr. Moses has said the district will conduct a national search for a project manager. More than $131 million is set aside in the bond proposal just for environmental testing and program design and management.

Even with those precautions, the bond program is likely to change as it progresses. That isn’t unusual, said Barbara Worth, spokeswoman for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, an industry association.

“It’s really the norm, unfortunately,” she said. “Costs go up, different things become more important, and people say we’ll do this but we won’t do that. Some things have to go to the wayside.”

In any case, DISD isn’t likely to suffer the public backlash it did when the Townview project was scaled back, partly because specifics haven’t been put on the table this time around.

Public disappointment with Townview was magnified because plans for the campus had been public for years. U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders had ordered the “supermagnet” high school built in his 1982 desegregation order, and district officials made Townview a selling point in the 1992 bond election.

So when the cuts were made, they did not go unnoticed. Months after the campus opened, a group of activists led by County Commissioner John Wiley Price began holding daily protests outside the school, in part because they said facilities promises had not been met.

“Even with the cuts, I believe we still ended up with a very good campus,” said Mr. Jennings, the architect. He said many of the cuts were for “extras” such as a two-story sculpture and higher-quality finishes in common areas.

This time, officials haven’t gone far beyond broad descriptions of where new schools would be built and which existing schools would get refurbishments. Specifics are largely not on the table.

“If the voters approve [the bond issue], then we’ll go ahead with the specifics,” Dr. Moses said.