After reading yesterday's editorial in The Dallas Morning News about the Dallas Independent School District's use of eminent domain to shore up land for a new O.M. Roberts Elementary School in the southeast Dallas neighborhood of Jubilee Park, we fired off about a half dozen questions to district spokesperson Jon Dahlander.
See, we've been following this story closely but realized we hadn't seen a good explanation of the district's "official reasons" for wanting a new facility. All we knew about were general complaints about the air conditioning and overcrowded classrooms, so we asked what issues officially triggered the push for a new O.M. Roberts.
We also asked if the district looked into whether or not the century-old building could be renovated and modernized, as opposed to the current plan which calls for bulldozing homes and uprooting a very successful business.
Yesterday, about five hours into the board briefing, Dahlander slipped out long enough to call us back and address some of our queries. He spent more than 10 minutes explaining the background of the decision and the district's current position as it relates to folks who don't want to be forced out of their homes.
"I definitely understand, and I think everybody within the district understands, where they're coming from," Dahlander says. "In a perfect world, we would have -- over in that area -- enough vacant lots around there to where this wouldn't be an issue. The purchase of property would not be an issue, and things would be much easier."
Unfortunately, that's not the case, he says. "We're in a landlocked situation."
However, Dahlander claims that it's "not a fair characterization" to say the district is "out to take people's property away."
Instead, he suggests, folks have to go back in time to get an understanding as to why there was a recommendation for the DISD to build a replacement school to begin with.
In 2007, Dahlander says the board appointed various community members to the Future Facilities Task Force. This group was charged with looking at the district and making recommendations regarding where new schools should be built, which aging schools should be replaced and which schools needed renovations. The task force met throughout '07 and finished their report in early 2008.
And when the Future Facilities Task Force came back with those recommendations, Dahlander says, "They actually came back with many more than the board had the stomach to take to the voters."
In February 2008, the school board approved a "scaled down" version of what the overall needs were, and in that set of recommendations by the taskforce was, you guessed it, a replacement school for O.M. Roberts. Then the board voted to send the recommendations to the voters for the go-ahead. In May 2008, the public headed to the polls and approved the DISD's $1.35 billion bond program.
Since then, Dahlander says, "What we the district are trying to do is follow the directions that have been given to us through the voters, through the board, as recommended by the Future Facilities Task Force."
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He had seen the editorial that morning but stresses that the district "is certainly open to having discussions." But, what makes this whole Jubilee Park thing a little more complex, is that some of these folks -- "understandably," he says -- have legal counsel. And it's not in the best interest of the taxpayers to negotiate these matters publicly.
Speaking of legal matters, we'd been trying to get the district to comment on whether or not they agreed with the alleged tactics of Ramirez & Associates with the residents of Jubilee Park who speak only Spanish.
If you recall, at the "emergency meeting" at DISD headquarters two weeks back, Rawly Sanchez translated for two Spanish-only Jubilee Park residents who already signed away their homes, who maintain that they were coerced to sign contracts written in English only. We're trying to find out if the district condones the practice of having someone sign a contract that they can't read.
Dahlander said that was a legal question, so he couldn't comment. We've got a call into DISD general counsel Jack Elrod to see if he'll comment.