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Vandals and thieves trashing Dallas ISD’s closed schools


It’s shocking to know that Dallas ISD wasted our tax dollars on destroying then reconstructing O.M. Roberts while perfectly good schools are abandoned, underutilized and vandalized.

By MATTHEW HAAG  Staff Writer

Published: 25 October 2013 10:57 PM

When Dallas ISD decided to close 11 schools over the past two years, district leaders promised to keep the doors locked, alarms set and lawns mowed.

The grass still gets trimmed every so often, but vandals and thieves have trashed Pearl C. Anderson Middle Learning Center in South Dallas. Graffiti covers walls outside H.S. Thompson Learning Center. And raccoons infested Julia Frazier Elementary School.

Residents who opposed the closures, an effort to save about $11 million, worried that the buildings would become magnets for vandals and thieves.

“Anytime you leave something closed in South Dallas, they are going to tear it up and destroy it,” said Tim Sweet, who has lived across the street from Anderson for 20 years. “It’s just a waste of money.”

Trustee Bernadette Nutall, who represents South Dallas, was frustrated when she learned about the problems this week from The Dallas Morning News. She said she would immediately ask administrators to produce a report on the condition of the closed schools.

“They never told me that they had boarded up schools,” Nutall said. “We were worried about it, but they assured us. They assured us that they would have security and make sure it didn’t happen.”

District officials said they are working on securing the properties and finding uses for the buildings.

“I don’t want to give the impression that the buildings are closed and that we are just walking away from the buildings,” said Wanda Paul, the district’s operations chief. “We will continue to be vigilant and maintain the buildings.”

Paul said the thieves are also hitting businesses and residences near the schools as they hunt for copper to sell to metal recycling companies. “Copper is the new gold, and we have a lot,” she said.

Administrators have known about some of the vandalism for months. Last April, DISD’s operations department told some trustees that they were struggling to keep vandals out of closed schools, according to a recording of a meeting.

“We have had significant buildings vandalized that cost us a significant amount of money,” Kevin Smelker, who was operations chief at the time, told three trustees on a board subcommittee. “We had to take additional steps to secure the premise, secure the entry points. At many buildings, there’s just nobody around, so it’s just an invite.”

Two months later, Pearl C. Anderson was closed. Since then Sweet has watched the school deteriorate. Shattered windows are covered with plywood. The main entrance is boarded up, with wood wedged against the doors on the inside to keep them closed.

Electrical wires were cut. Water pipes were stolen. And copper was taken from the boiler room and air-conditioning units. Ceiling tiles were torn down and trophy cases were shattered. Among the graffiti: “R.I.P. Peral B.”

The school has had 24-hour private security for several weeks and security cameras have been placed outside the building.

Dallas ISD Police Chief Craig Miller said people have been arrested inside schools but they quickly get out of jail. He said it can be a challenge to respond to night calls at schools because there are only so many DISD officers to monitor the district’s 293 buildings.

DISD trustees approved closing the schools to save money after the Texas Legislature cut billions from public education funds in 2011. Most of the schools were selected because they had low enrollment. Many of them are in poor neighborhoods where there is other vacant property and few thriving businesses.

At the time, district administrators said the closures could be temporary and they promised to maintain the schools.

Five of the closed schools are in South Dallas. O.M. Roberts Elementary was razed, rebuilt and reopened. The rest are vacant, and all have some damage.

The AC units on top of H.S. Thompson have been stripped of copper and there’s graffiti on several walls. Raccoons moved into Frazier Elementary and set off the school alarm, according to a district employee aware of the situation. At Phillis Wheatley Elementary, paint was thrown on some doors, while others are boarded up. Wires have been stripped from electrical boxes.

The district also has vacant campuses that it acquired when it took over Wilmer-Hutchins ISD in 2006. One campus, C.S. Winn Elementary, was closed with test pamphlets and schoolwork still in classrooms. Some of those classrooms have been vandalized, with shattered windows and damaged doors.

Not all of the schools that were closed in the last two years were damaged, however. Fannin Elementary on Ross Avenue has been used for adult basic education classes. And City Park Elementary in the Cedars just south of downtown was recently leased to an after-school program.

The district’s immigration intake office has reopened in space behind Bonham Elementary. The school building has had some vandalism, however.

The school board set up a Physical Assets Ad Hoc Committee in the past year to review the condition of all the district’s buildings. Trustee Elizabeth Jones, who heads the committee, has mentioned the need for a policy on how DISD should handle closed schools.

The closed schools collectively are worth millions of dollars. Bonham has an appraised value of $6.7 million, according to the Dallas County Appraisal District. Hulcy Middle School, which is in the Red Bird area and is used for DISD police training, was appraised by the county at $11.1 million.

The lowest appraisals are for H.S. Thompson Learning Center at $61,570 and Wheatley Elementary at $69,720. Pearl C. Anderson Middle Learning Center was appraised at $208,100.

Ken Good, whose company buys and redevelops old buildings, bought DISD’s historic Davy Crockett building in East Dallas several years ago. He fixed it up and has it on the market again.

He said that school buildings in good locations, such as Bonham, could sell for significant money. But the vandalized South Dallas campuses have dropped in value, he said.

“Vandalism ultimately hurts the communities they are in. It’s going to have a significant impact,” he said.

Good said that DISD usually sells properties as is, meaning that buyers are responsible for repairs. It also means the buildings stay zoned as schools and efforts to change the zoning aren’t always successful, he said.

Charter school operators have inquired about some of the DISD properties, but the district has said it has no intention to sell the buildings.

Charter schools received state funds to educate students but do not get tax dollars for facilities. Tennis great Andre Agassi, who has a foundation that helps finance buildings for charter schools, said Wednesday that vacant public schools can be the right fit for charters.

Some public school districts, however, resist having charters move in.

“With some public schools that have closed down, there can be some politics involved in turning over that space to a charter school operator,” Agassi said during the dedication of KIPP Destiny Elementary in Dallas’ Red Bird area.

“In some cases, it would be ideal,” he said. “In others, it would not because I can assure you that a good-quality public facility is not shutting down.”

DISD leaders said they are pursuing new uses for H.S. Thompson and Pearl C. Anderson in South Dallas.

Paul, the operations chief, declined to elaborate but said the administration is considering several options.

Before anything happens, Paul said, the district will have to file insurance claims on the damage and figure out what repairs are needed. She said she wants the schools to be free of the plywood on the windows and doors.

“We cannot just leave them in the current state,” she said. “Even though they aren’t occupied, they are still part of the community.”

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