Impulse buying

A proposal to turn a church into classrooms raises a choir of critics

Lynda McDow concedes that her proposal to convert an old church into a public school could cause some flak, but that doesn't bother the Dallas Independent School District trustee.

"Yeah, it'll be controversial," McDow says of her plan, scheduled to go before the DISD board in late August. "But that's great, because it will finally get people talking about [immediate space shortages]."

To McDow, the answer seems simple. The district faces severe space shortages and a fast-growing school-age population. So why not have the district buy an existing structure--an old church, with its wide-open spaces and ready-made cafeterias--and transform it into a public school?

Specifically, McDow has identified a 149,000-square-foot property with four buildings owned by East Grand Avenue Baptist Church near the corner of East Grand and Cristler Avenue. DISD superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez has recommended to the board that the district pay $1.7 million for the property, or about $11.41 per square foot.

Other DISD trustees have reacted strongly--as McDow predicted they would--to idea of the district buying a church: They want to make sure it doesn't happen.

Their concerns cover the obvious issue of the separation of church and state. Do Jewish parents want to send their children to a school that used to hang pictures of Christ? Do Muslim parents want teaching taking place between the pews?

Even if the stained glass could be replaced and the steeple retrofitted--and no one has estimated the costs of that overhaul yet--the trustees opposing the plan also say the proposed purchase reflects a scattershot, impulsive approach to the district's space shortages and should be blocked on that basis alone.

"We are going to kill this thing," says Hollis Brashear, a DISD trustee who counts four others on the nine-member board in his camp on this matter. (Notably, board president Kathleen Leos and DISD Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez have endorsed the idea of buying the church.)

"There are all sorts of problems with it. There was no input from the community. A couple of board members have a feel-good feeling about this church, and then they brought in a one-page memo saying we should buy it," Brashear says.

Trustee John Dodd, who has sided with Brashear against the church, says simply: "This impulsive purchasing has got to come to a halt."

The proposal will go before the full board for a formal vote August 28. But board members began discussing the merits of the proposal at a committee meeting August 5. Last week, board members were scheduled to look at the property.

Few trustees quarrel with the contention that the school district needs more classroom space. The DISD student population, now 155,000, grew by roughly 5,000 last year and is expected to continue expanding at that pace. In recent years, DISD has relied on portable buildings to alleviate space shortages. As a result, a number of schools are landlocked; they have no more space on their campuses for playgrounds, much less any kind of a temporary structure. Parents have reacted disfavorably to the portables, and the Dallas City Council has complained about the appearance of the quickly erected buildings.

McDow says the space shortages have become particularly acute for her constituents. For a long time she has been scouring neighborhoods for alternatives to the portables. "I was looking at hospitals, anything that was big," McDow says.

Earlier this summer, she came across a catalog listing churches for sale that included an advertisement for the property on East Grand. Encouraged, McDow says, she took the catalog to the school administrators in charge of real estate purchases at the time. Board president Leos later followed up on McDow's suggestions and pressed staff members to begin talking with the church's representatives and reviewing the property.

At the August 5 committee meeting, veteran trustee Yvonne Ewell complained about the way McDow and Leos had gone directly to the DISD administration without first getting the board to approve the proposal. Ewell "expressed concern that board members are directing the staff to take action without conferring with the entire board," according to the minutes of the meeting.

McDow says she makes no apologies for going straight to the administrators with her catalog. "The critical need is now," she says. At the committee meeting, Gonzalez also said she had "no problem" with trustees recommending sites to the administration.

But DISD trustee Lois Parrott, who has opposed the church-buying plan, does have a problem with ad hoc real estate purchasing initiatives. Parrott intends to introduce, as chair of the safety and creative environment committee, a report that lists criteria for the district to follow when considering real estate buys. "We must have a master expansion plan in place," Parrott says. "We need to have the full board and the community give input."

But for McDow, the bureaucratic delays caused by such deliberation are untenable. "We can't wait any longer," she says.

 
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