The price of privilege

The well-heeled Highland Park schools rarely elicit sympathy from the Dallas area's commoner districts.

Who could summon pity for a school district where the average home value hovers around $400,000, and where only eight African-Americans are currently enrolled in its schools?

Indeed, for a quick measure of the Highland Park Independent School District's wealth, one need only pass by the parking lot of its high school. It is so loaded with late-model vehicles--ones that Daddy and Mommy undoubtedly purchased for Junior--that it could easily be confused with the grounds of a car dealership.

But even the area's most privileged school district, which serves the cities of Highland Park and University Park, has its problems. And a recent spat involving some of the Park Cities' less affluent residents has hit home--so to speak.

Two weeks ago, the district's 18-member facility committee announced a proposal to tear down some 25 homes in order to make way for a new elementary school. It just so happens that these homes are some of the least expensive in the district. And not surprisingly, their occupants are outraged by the plan.

Last week, some 600 residents showed up at Highland Park's school board meeting. Many came to protest the committee's proposal.

"They have been hostile, and I can understand that," says facility committee member Brian Lidji about the owners of the targeted residences. "I would be, too."

"We are sensitive to the human pain that this change will require," adds Harry Hargrave, a school trustee who serves as chairman of the facility committee. "We are trying to minimize that but do what's right for the community."

Hargrave, Lidji, and other committee members, who were all appointed by the Highland Park school board, explain that a new elementary school is desperately needed because the Park Cities school population is growing at such an accelerated pace. In a densely populated district such as Highland Park ISD, with few open spaces available, some people's homes are going to have to come down. It's just a matter of whose and how many.

The school district now has a student population of about 5,400. But Highland Park ISD's most recent demographic study, a comprehensive report that took four months to complete, projects that by the year 2000 the district's population will leap to at least 6,500.

Committee members say those numbers may soar even higher as young couples with small children buy up smaller homes in the northern part of the Park Cities, then tear them down to build larger residences. So many new homes are under construction in lots on Rosedale Avenue, just north of University Boulevard, for instance, that the block resembles a new housing tract in a Dallas suburb.

Already, the district's four elementary schools--Robert S. Hyer, University Park, John S. Bradfield, and John S. Armstrong--are filled to capacity. The district is making do with portable classrooms at University Park and Hyer.

The facility committee studied its options for a year before recommending that a new elementary school be built to meet the increased demand. If the committee settles on its first-choice site, the district would have to tear down 20 to 25 homes in its northeast quadrant.

Last week, the committee dispatched letters warning owners of 46 homes that their residences may be targeted by the district's expansion plans. Though the plans are not final, committee members say they wanted to give homeowners advance notice so no one could come back later and accuse the panel of acting underhandedly.

The targeted homes are not your typical Park Cities palaces. Their average value on the tax rolls is a mere $180,000, less than half the average value for homes districtwide, according to Ron Knight, Highland Park ISD's assistant superintendent for business services.

"This is some of the cheapest land in the Park Cities," concedes Michael Boone, a Dallas lawyer and former school board member who serves on the panel that made the recommendation. It's not an accident that the committee has targeted cheaper houses, he adds. Boone contends that the committee and school board share an obligation to taxpayers to keep the costs of purchasing land for a school as low as possible.

No aspect of the plan, however, is set in stone. Committee chairman Hargrave says the panel has begun considering other options that might require fewer relocations.

"We're working on a couple of scenarios that may be successful," Hargrave says. One such possibility involves negotiations with Southern Methodist University, which owns much of the land near the proposed elementary school site. Another calls for discussions with the City of University Park to rework some street plans. "Until we get all that settled, I'm not going to get site specific," Hargrave says.

Even so, the panel may be ready to announce possible new sites in less than a week, Hargrave says.

Other committee members say they remain open-minded about the plan. "We will look at everything," Lidji says.

If the committee's only concern were to keep the relocations to a minimum--with no regard for the financial costs--there is one potential solution that would undoubtedly have had a sort of populist appeal.

Why not transform one of the enormous estates of the Park Cities' high and mighty into an elementary school?

It just so happens that Edwin L. Cox's home on Beverly Drive in Highland Park occupies slightly more than the 6.5 acres the district's facility committee has determined it needs to build an elementary school.

"You couldn't do that," Hargrave says, seemingly appalled at the suggestion that the district convert Cox's mansion into an elementary school. "Your cost would be enormous, and besides, it would be several blocks from an existing elementary school. It doesn't solve the problem."

Cox's home is valued at a cool $8.6 million on the tax rolls. It probably would cost the school board more to buy his home than to purchase and raze the 20 or 25 much smaller homes that the district is now targeting farther to the north. Cox's home also isn't as close to the neighborhoods where elementary school population growth is expected.

But the Cox site certainly has its charms. And if the facility committee redrew its borders for the new school, Cox's home just might work. The school district would get the benefit of reduced transaction costs and the satisfaction of knowing it had moved only one family instead of two dozen.

Besides, if Cox's place didn't work out, there's always the $8.98-million estate of his neighbor, Harlan Crow, that sits on a spacious 7.96 acres--plenty of room for little rich kids to roam.


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