Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Bond or bust (Part 2)

The reason why SISD leaders say bond funding is needed

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Editor’s note: This article is part two of a series to find out why Springtown Independent School District’s bond proposals have failed four times in a row. The Tri-County Reporter has interviewed supporters and opponents of the school bond and SISD’s leaders as well as retrieved data on local property taxes. Part one of this series tracks the history of SISD’s bond efforts. This article will examine the current state of SISD schools and claims of overcrowding.

SPRINGTOWN — Jessica Castro, a Springtown High School alumna whose children have attended Springtown schools, recalled when her son described the overcrowding at SHS in a way that many local folks can relate to.

“We had the Wild West (Festival); he was walking down to where the food trucks were, and it was a sea of people, and he turned to me, and he said, ‘This is what it's like in the hallways at the school,’” Castro said. “I was floored by that because I was uncomfortable just walking through that crowd, and he has to do it every day all day long.”

If they had passed at the polls, Springtown Independent School District’s bond proposals last year would have addressed the high number of students at all campuses. The plan was to turn the current middle school into a ninth-grade center to allow for growth of 360 freshmen students and build a new middle school on Williams-Ward Road. This would have freed up space at SHS to the tune of 515 seats and allowed for 250 more students in grades six through eight. Converting the current intermediate school into SISD’s fourth elementary school for grades pre-kindergarten through five could have made room for 330 more students. Thus, the 2023 bond proposal would have made it possible for SISD to have space for 1,455 new students, seats that will be needed if SISD follows the enrollment projections available during the elections that predicted 133-198 new students each school year through 2031-32.

Generally, more students mean the need for more teachers to supervise them. SISD Superintendent Shane Strickland said at the elementary level, SISD has had to previously request waivers from the state when class sizes exceed 22 students for every teacher. These student-teacher ratios aren’t a meaningless requirement but are a necessary guideline for educators to be effective in their jobs.

“Teachers are being asked to educate a classroom full of kids that have different learning abilities,” Strickland said. “With our (special education) population of kids, now they're mainstreamed, so there might be some barriers there that require kids to have more attention, and the more kids you have in a classroom, that creates more kids that need special attention.”

While utilizing portable classrooms can alleviate some of the needs, exceeding a building’s functional capacity affects more than just classroom space. Strickland explained that portable buildings — which don’t include restrooms — don’t address overcrowding in core spaces that all students need to use.

“Your gym space and your cafeteria spaces, your library — you've outgrown those things because you've put all these kids in portables that weren't meant to be in that building,” Strickland said, going on to explain that more lunch periods have been needed to ensure there is enough room in the cafeterias. “That goes for every campus. Our high school and our middle school both are at four lunches a day, and kids start early, and they finish late eating lunch. And when you get into that many lunches with the little ones, they're hungry. The growing kids are hungry, and if they eat at the first lunch, then they're hungry by the middle of the afternoon. Vice versa if they have to wait until the last lunch then they're obviously really hungry, and they need snacks and stuff beforehand.”

For the elementary schools’ cafeterias specifically, the superintendent lamented that those spaces don’t even have enough room for parents to come to school and eat lunch with their children. Meanwhile at the high school, SISD is trying to enhance its career and technical education programs but can’t always offer those classes on campus.

“We're transporting 25 cosmetology kids to Weatherford High School,” Strickland said, as an example. “We’re trying to find a place to be able to host that in our own district because if we're sending 25 kids over there, that’s costing us money, but if we have them here, then it's saving us money in that sense, plus building more programs for our kids. And there's lots of opportunities, but if you don't have space for those opportunities, then you can't do it.”

SISD has used portables, which each contain two classrooms and can hold a total of 20 kids per classroom or 40 per portable, for as long as Strickland can recall during his time at SISD. He pointed out that while they serve their purpose, they have some drawbacks. For one, portables can cost more than $200,000 and don’t have the same lifespan as a permanent building. They may also not be the best place for students and staff to be during emergencies, like severe weather.

“I believe that kids can learn in portables,” Strickland said. “Is it the safest place for a kid? No, it's not. Is it the most conducive to learning? No, it's not.”

Because of state law, each SISD campus is monitored by a school resource police officer provided by the city of Springtown in a partnership with SISD. Springtown Public Safety Director and City Administrator David Miller said the school resource officers must oversee the security of an entire campus, even as students are separated from the main building while in portables or participating in other school activities. For example, Miller said SROs perform external patrols and door checks at all areas of a campus.

Portables do pose some concerns, especially for elementary students, because they create the need for students to walk to and from the portable to the main campus. Secondary-level students have scheduled passing periods where they travel together from class to class, which is generally safer, Miller said, but there are also times when a student may have to go from a portable to the main building by themself and at random times.

“The portables not having restrooms presents a unique challenge because students may need to travel back to the main building at many different points during the day and may have to do so alone,” he said. “This presents several safety concerns for the student. Similarly, for a student who spends most of their educational time in a portable, they will have to travel between the portable and the main building for any centralized need — visiting the office, the library, the cafeteria, the nurse, the gymnasium, etc.”

Miller acknowledged that school safety and security is typically thought of in terms of preventing a tragic active shooter situation. While that’s important, keeping students and staff safe goes beyond that kind of emergency.

“Another way in which portables present a concern that is different from other types of physically separate facilities is related to severe weather,” Miller said. “Not only are portables less likely to withstand certain types of severe weather (such as a tornado or straight lines winds), evacuating students from portables back to the main building due to severe weather presents safety concerns especially in a rapidly unfolding or ongoing severe weather event. In our area, it is not unusual for instances of severe weather to occur with little to no warning.”

Aside from portables, an overcrowded campus creates traffic, both outside and inside a school, that can hinder emergency responses. Miller said response times could be delayed if police or emergency medical services personnel have to navigate through crowded hallways at times when students are walking through the halls all at once. Likewise, evacuation procedures are more complicated if there are more students in a building.

“While all relevant agencies work in partnership with SISD to combat these challenges due to the current circumstances, the reality is that it would be safer for all parties if those overcrowded conditions did not exist,” Miller said.

Schools already garner high traffic during drop-off and pick-up times, but overcrowding can worsen the congestion.

“As we have seen with Springtown Elementary School, the city can put a significant effort into implementing additional traffic control measures and having additional law enforcement presence, but when the schools and their parking lots/drive through areas were originally designed for a specific capacity and the student and staff population exceeds that population, it has a direct impact on the traffic flow near the school,” Miller said.

Springtown Police Department Deputy Chief Jamie Oliver concurred with Miller’s concerns regarding portables as well as traffic. Oliver added that crowded spaces inside schools could contribute to kids feeling upset, and streets blocked with traffic around school drop-off and pick-up times can also hinder emergency services from traveling around town quickly. However, Oliver said he hasn’t encountered a situation where police have been impeded by school traffic so far.

“Of course, we know the backroads to get around,” he said. “(Emergency medical services) may not.”

At a pre-election town hall meeting, one attendee asked what would happen if the district refused to accept students who transfer to the district, but Strickland said that strategy could have the potential to backfire and make the situation worse.

“We have more kids that are transferring out than that are transferred in,” he said. “If we were to say, ‘No, we're closing our doors to those transfers,’ then those other districts that are having the same capacity issues (maybe not Azle because they’ve passed a couple of bonds), but they could do the same thing. And then if that was to happen, then our population (would) grow faster than we anticipated in the first place. So that's a little bit of a risk.”

With the knowledge of SISD’s space needs and the awareness that a successful bond election would relieve at least some of the overcrowding, Castro doesn’t understand why the bond election hasn’t passed.

“It's a little hurtful when you see that we don't have room for our kids in the school,” she said. “The community isn't really supporting that. They're griping about, ‘We don't have enough teachers, we don't have enough space, my kid is (having) to stand up on the school bus.’ They have all these complaints, but the way that we can fix it is by passing this bond so that we can have bigger schools and more things that we need for our children. So, it's a little disheartening when I see that we keep saying no to this.”

The Tri-County Reporter has observed that the main reason people say they oppose SISD’s bond proposal is because of the fear of increased taxes. These voters are concerned about being taxed out of their homes, unable to feed their families or pay their electric bills. These concerns will be explored next in this series.

Stay tuned for the next part of “Bond or bust” in next week's paper.