A house divided

Vernon Johnson, the superintendent of the Richardson Independent School District, looked glum as he sat with other school administrators on a stage before an agitated audience of 550 people.

Johnson had mostly kept his mouth shut and listened during the town-hall meeting that ran for well over two hours last week in the auditorium of the red-brick RISD administration building on Greenville Avenue.

More than 50 parents, teachers, and Richardson property owners had lined up behind a microphone to offer their thoughts on the evening's topic: RISD's lopsided distribution of students among its 51 schools.

In its southern and eastern sectors, particularly near Spring Valley and Coit Roads, Richardson's schools are overcrowded. The schools' enrollment in that area have not only increased but have become more ethnically and economically mixed since 1989. That was the year federal housing laws forced apartment complexes to rent to tenants with children, prompting an influx of lower-income residents, a group that now includes African-Americans, Hispanics, Russians, and Kurds.

Meanwhile, many RISD schools in the northern and western sectors, which have few apartment complexes, have lost enrollment to the point that they don't have enough students to fill their classrooms. Moreover, the student bodies at RISD's northern schools, which feed into J.J. Pearce High School, still largely reflect the white-flight patterns of 30 years ago, when upper- and middle-class whites migrated north to escape federally imposed integration and busing in Dallas schools.

Superintendent Johnson last month began a series of town-hall meetings--last week's was the third--to allow the public to comment on proposed solutions to balance the RISD schools' enrollments and ethnic mix.

Those proposed solutions are now threatening a small-scale, racially tinged civil war in RISD, pitting the parents of students in the overcrowded southern schools against those to the north, with both sides concerned about the prospect of tax hikes.

The meeting last week was one of the first skirmishes. The crowd, a largely white audience, which included parents from all parts of RISD, alternately cheered and hissed speakers as they talked about "the burdens of high-needs kids" and "over-challenging non-English speaking children," and "maintaining the proportion of homeowners to apartment dwellers."

One speaker from the Northwood Hills Elementary School area prefaced his remarks by stating, "Please don't think I am mean-spirited," and then went on to ask, referring to the recent demographic changes: "What is the district's ability to protect its borders?"

"We do not want to combine schools," said a parent from the Pearce district. "We just want to continue with quality education."

Superintendent Johnson seemed visibly disgusted with the parochial bickering. "None of you really look happy up there," one speaker told the administrators.

Johnson, prodded by another audience member, finally explained his dour demeanor. "I am deeply concerned about some of the discussion I hear about children in our school district," Johnson told the group. "They are all our children. I don't care where they came from."

Earlier this fall, a committee of 21 RISD residents and school-district administrators presented a year-long study of the district's projected building and facility needs for the next 10 years. In November, RISD administrators, using the findings from that committee's report, produced a 35-page set of proposals to address the district's overcrowding and under-capacity problems. The administration released the proposals for discussion at the town-hall meetings. In late April or May, the administration expects to make a final proposal about how to handle the overcrowding and under-capacity problems to RISD's elected board of trustees.

At the end of last week, the board announced that Johnson had submitted his resignation--on the same night of the contentious town-hall meeting--and will not finish the last three years of his contract. He will leave in April--shortly after the proposals are made--to join a private Dallas company that recently started up to provide after-school programs.

Johnson could not be reached for comment about the reasons for his resignation.

The administration has not yet released detailed projected-cost figures for the various proposed solutions for the lopsided enrollments. It plans to do so this week. But the odds of a tax hike are better than good. "When all needs have been identified, the district will hold a bond election," the administrators stated at the conclusion of their report.

The proposals to address RISD's enrollment problem include: simply adding more portable classrooms to the overcrowded facilities, erecting new school buildings, shifting attendance boundaries, reconfiguring grade structures, collapsing the four high schools into two, initiating a trimester program at overcrowded schools, and--perhaps the most obvious solution--busing students from the overcrowded schools in the south to emptier classrooms in the north.

Parents with children in the overcrowded southern schools favored redrawing school boundaries, busing children, and even collapsing two RISD high schools, Richardson and Pearce, into one big school. "If you look into your heart and don't talk about your property values, you can find the answer," said one speaker who supported busing the children to the north and creating a more ethnically diverse balance at all RISD schools.

"Anyone from the International Court at the Hague would call this a no-brainer," he added to a long round of applause from the audience.

The southern district schools already have their share of temporary classrooms and parents from those schools do not want more. If the district decides to go with the portables proposal, RISD would have to buy 56 portable classrooms, a nearly $2 million investment. RISD already has 168 portables in use.

One parent from Arapaho Elementary School, a centrally located institution that is not overcrowded, drew loud cheers when she declared, "Fourteen temporary classrooms at Dober Elementary is inexcusable."

Most parents with children attending crowded southern schools that feed into Richardson High School even seemed receptive to the notion of combining that upper-level institution with its RISD arch rival, J. J. Pearce. "You can take a negative out of having two high schools close together, and make a positive," said one parent.

But those with children in schools that feed into Pearce seemed particularly bothered by the merger proposal, even though RISD has projected that Pearce will be 718 students short of capacity in five years. At the beginning of this year, Pearce had 1,511 students. By comparison, Richardson High School has 1,565 students, but is projected to be down only 99 students in five years.

"Frankly, I kind of resent the notion that the people from Pearce don't want other people," said a speaker who lives within Pearce's enrollment boundaries. She advocated drawing more children north by establishing magnet schools. "Please don't damage what is already good," she pleaded.

If keeping academic standards high is the only concern of northern Richardson, district records show there is little to fear. While the ethnic mix of the two high schools is remarkably different, the scholastic achievements of the two institutions are nearly the same.

More than 80 percent of Pearce students are white. The school has only 37 Hispanics and 34 African-Americans. At Richardson High School, only 52 percent of the students are white. The school has 188 Hispanic students and 258 African-American students. There are 121 Asians at Pearce and 95 at Richardson.

In measures of academic performance, the two schools rank roughly the same. Richardson High School this year produced 14 National Merit Scholars Program semifinalists compared to Pearce's 16, which is based on test scores as well as teacher recommendations. In terms of winning scholarship dollars, Richardson High School slightly outstripped Pearce. In May of last year, Richardson's students had received $3.5 million while Pearce's had attracted $3.2 million.

At least one Pearce parent seems ready to accept the inevitable boundary changes. "Pearce needs more students, that's obvious," she said. "We just need to broaden our definition of a neighborhood.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen