Last night, the Dallas Independent School District played host more than 150 folks in a heated -- though comfortably air-conditioned -- town hall meeting at the century-old O.M. Roberts Elementary School building meant to bring the Jubilee Park neighborhood together to discuss the "past, present and future" of the elementary school's new building and replacement site.
A future site which it seems is on shakier ground today, because by the end of the last night's hour-long, standing-room-only meeting, the district said it would now delay the Jubilee Park land grab for six months while DISD staff reexamines other possible locations that would have less of an impact on the neighborhood.
"We're here to hear your concerns and to talk about the past, present and future of O.M. Roberts," said District 9 trustee Bernadette Nutall when calling the meeting to order. On stage, she was joined by Arnold Viramontes, DISD chief of staff, and Phil Jimerson, DISD executive director of construction services.
"I understand that DISD does not have the trust of the public," she said early on in the meeting. Acknowledging that folks "don't trust DISD," she even "owned up" to the fact that the district "has not always been on the up and up with the public." But Nutall repeatedly said she was trying to gain their trust: "We need to make the best decision for our students, as well as for the community."
A community who turned out in an impressive show of opposition to the district's use of eminent domain in the neighborhood -- though those for and against were both wearing purple shirts to express their position. In addition to the residents affected by the land grab and parents of students who attend O.M. Roberts, a huge contingent of the businesses who rely on Vickery Wholesale Greenhouse showed up to voice their concerns about shutting down the successful business, which has been serving Dallas and nearby cities since 1952.
"I've been to so many City Council meetings where they talk about bringing commerce to the south side of town, and you want to destroy a crown jewel," said Terri Raith, a Junius Heights resident and real estate agent who once worked for Vickery. She was interrupted by a burst of applause from the audience.
But, for all the opposition to the current plans, most in the crowd seemed to support improvements or even a new building, just not at the expense of the neighborhood's long-time residents and Vickery.
Several residents brought up vacant lots in the area as alternatives, as well as other school sites like Fannie C. Harris Elementary. But DISD staff said Fannie C. Harris wasn't chosen for the site was due to "capacity limitations."
On several occasions the crowd turned downright ornery, like when long-time Jubilee Park resident and property owner Jewel Floyd remarked that DISD officials should be "locked up" based on their actions thus far. The crowd erupted with cheers and applause.
Moments later later, a woman piped up pressing Nutall to answer whether or not the district would stop condemning properties and buying up land until the other sites and options have been considered. "All hearings have been stopped," Nutall answered, looking to Viramontes and Jimerson for confirmation. "They've stopped all hearings," she reiterated.
Then, while one attendee was trying to ask a question about whether DISD has considered the ripple effect that closing a business like Vickery would have throughout the neighborhood and surrounding areas, Viramontes, Jimerson and another guy in a suit were whispering quietly on the stage. Several folks in the crowd noticed the conversation, and then angrily voiced their disapproval."You're not even listening to him!!" one woman shouted. "Do you have any idea what this man just said!!?" another voice called out.
Several tense moments passed as Nutall tried to diffuse the situation. To Viramontes's credit, when pressed to recap the question, he did pretty well for having been involved in another discussion. Apparently, the reason for the aside amongst DISD staff had to do with the impromptu plan to, according to Nutall: "Put a six\-month halt on this to see what we can do."
"We've been getting a lot of phone calls about this issue," said Juan J. Ayala, state Rep. Eric Johnson's chief of staff, who at one point grabbed the mic to address audience. "I think there's an understanding that eminent domain should be a last resort," Ayala said, adding that Johnson's office would provide support to both DISD and the residents on this issue.
Then, a full 45 minutes into the hour-long meeting, an O.M. Roberts teacher stood to speak. Wearing a purple TAKS T-shirt, the man said it had been "interesting" to hear all of the opposition to the project from residents and businesses. Then the teacher said he was "worried that he hadn't heard any voices speak for the kids." The teacher spoke of the schools limited amenities and said that the children needed to be remembered in this process before ending with: "I personally think we need a new building."
Before closing the meeting, Viramontes said the district would be "going back and looking at the four or five options" -- though he and Nutall had to reiterate several times during the meeting that those sites couldn't be discussed because the holdouts had legal representation.
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"We just started looking at the options, I can tell you that much," Nutall said. "We're looking, but we cannot talk about the options."
Additionally, Viramontes announced that DISD will be setting up an FAQ devoted to O.M. Roberts and the new building on its Web site, and he asked that the audience e-mail him personally with their questions and concerns, as well as any suggested alternate sites for the new building. But one man in attendance asked a question that went something like: "Isn't coming up with alternatives your job?"
During the brief press conference that followed the meeting, Jimerson said condemnation proceedings would be on hold for six months. When asked why the current site was picked over other sites, he said (with three cameramen rolling): "We already have 3.5 acres, that's basically almost half of what we needed, so we could impact less amount of property and less homeowners."
"We'll keep looking at viable alternatives," DISD spokesperson Jon Dahlander told us as he was leaving. "That's all we can do."