Faced with a staggering 62.5% increase in costs, the District 65 Board of Education reached consensus Monday night on putting up a smaller, less expensive new school in the 5th Ward.
When the board voted for a 5th Ward School back in March, 2022, the promise from Superintendent Devon Horton was for a $40 million, three-story structure, for grades K-8.
But with the price tag for that plan reaching $65 million, the board agreed Monday night on a scaled down, $44.1 million, two-story K-5 school.
“All of us are having a tough time swallowing that the pill of $65 million,” said board member Biz Lindsay-Ryan.
Omar Salem, who was not on the board when the new school was approved, said it was “not responsible” to move forward with the $65 million plan.
“We can’t do it,” he added.
While board members all agreed to proceed with the cheaper option, an official vote won’t come for several weeks, once revised plans are brought to them by the architect.
A decision on awarding site clearance and structural foundation bids, which was on Monday’s agenda, was also put on hold pending the new architectural plans.
Interim Superintendent Angel Turner told the board that because the K-5 school requires redesign, the expected Fall 2025 opening will have to be pushed back the middle of the 2025-26 school year, or to Fall 2026.
She also said the delay will likely add 5% ($2.2 million) to the $44.1 million cost due to inflation.
While board president Sergio Hernandez ultimately did not object to the K-5 consensus, he said K-8 would give District 65 “more flexibility to right-size this district,” by having a larger building where some children from outside the 5th Ward might end up, if their schools are closed.
The smaller building would have room for 600 students instead of 1,000.
And, unlike the bigger, costlier option, the smaller plan would not require a tax increase via a voter referendum.
Twenty-five people addressed the board.
All agreed that a school in the historically Black 5th Ward, where children have been bused to other parts of town for decades, was long overdue.
Long-time activist Roger Williams told the board “we need to get to the finish line.”
But getting to that finish line with K-5 instead of K-8 seemed OK to the speakers.
There was also harsh public criticism of Horton, the former superintendent who was in charge when the $40 million, K-8 plan was approved.
“The $40 million was not real when Dr. Horton repeated those numbers over and over again,” said resident Barry Doyle. “Those were lies.”
And former D65 Board President Candance Chow said there needed to be “shared acknowledgement” by the school board of how the situation developed.
“I don’t doubt that you were not told” about the overruns, Chow told board members, “but you did not ask.”