The Dallas Independent School District is planning to pursue bond funding to pay for three new downtown campuses, a longtime wish for neighborhood boosters.
As it stands, the only public schools downtown are hyper-focused on subject matter: Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and CityLab High School, which trains students on urban planning, architecture, and community development.
In 2017, Downtown Dallas Inc. submitted a proposal through the district to put a Montessori school for kids in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade in downtown. As The Dallas Morning News reported at the time, the decision came after six years of research found, among other things, that families were fleeing the core after their children hit elementary age.
DDI recognized that there probably weren’t enough families downtown to fill an entire school, but the group zoomed in on the almost 140,000 people who worked among its high-rises. DDI floated the idea of including those workers’ children as potential students, something unseen in Dallas ISD. The initial pitch called for a lottery system with preference weighted toward downtown’s residents and workforce. But Dallas ISD was wary about enrollment—CityLab hadn’t yet hit its numbers, and Ben Milam and Sam Houston in Oak Lawn had been losing students.
In two years, those concerns have apparently waned. Workforce development became a buzzword during the last mayoral race, the wound still fresh after Amazon chose a better-educated tech workforce along the East Coast as the location for its second headquarters. Dallas ISD has entered into partnerships with big corporations downtown like AT&T, getting students in the door earlier than ever. Partnerships with the community college and with UNT Dallas have matured in recent years, creating more of a local education pipeline that’s ever existed here.
Last year, Dallas ISD approved the application for the Montessori school. Downtown Dallas Inc. CEO Kourtny Garrett said she’s helping iron out contractual details for a temporary location for the elementary school that could open as early as the fall of 2020. But the middle and high schools are new developments.
Yesterday at DDI’s annual luncheon, Garrett announced a next step. She said Dallas ISD also had plans for a middle school and a high school in downtown. She said it would likely be in partnership with the developer Mike Hoque, who owns most of the vacant land south of City Hall and has for years planned a mixed-use development with education services as its anchor.
Hoque said it was too early to talk specifics. But his land was one of the locations Amazon was considering. Included in Hoque and his partner KDC’s pitch was something called “Amazon U,” a joint effort between Dallas ISD, the Dallas County Community College District, the University of Texas System, the University of North Texas, and SMU to teach tech skills to Dallasites.
Garrett noted that DCCCD would be involved; the community college system recently secured bond dollars to build a new campus downtown. And Dallas ISD Trustee Miguel Solis said the potential to partner with the community college was another trigger for moving forward with schools downtown.
“Since the words ‘Amazon U’ were uttered, educational institutions that have been in those conversations haven’t let the train die,” Solis said. “I think Mike Hoque recognizes how dynamic anchoring his development with educational institutions can be for not only the future of downtown, but of the city and of the region. I’m of the belief that this is the decade of downtown.”
Solis confirmed that the district would be looking to pay for these new schools through bond dollars in 2020. The bond is expected to be around $2.5 billion, with most of it going toward rehabbing schools. Nobody was comfortable quoting a dollar amount for the schools quite yet. But Solis said that even if the deal with Hoque didn’t work out, the district would remain committed to opening the schools downtown. (DCCCD did not respond to requests for interviews with its chancellor, and Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa was unavailable Friday.)
“The district has recognized growth opportunities by looking at the demographics,” Garrett said after the luncheon. “Downtown is a market that is a neighborhood and we can fill schools with kids.”
According to the Census’ American Community Survey, almost 13,000 people now live in the three tracts that make up the urban core. That includes downtown, Deep Ellum, and the Cedars. Of those, about 702 are between 1 and 19.
“Even if 300 of those are under the age of 4, that’s enough to get a school started,” Garrett said.
As stated, the Montessori school will use a lottery enrollment with weighted preference to residents and downtown workers. It’s also reserving 50 percent of the student population for low-income students. Garrett anticipates that being how the others work, as well.
This also highlights something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. As we’ve reported, the city of Dallas lost 12,000 total residents to adjacent counties in 2017 despite adding 10,000 millenials. Which means: aging millenials, Gen Xers, and their families—and seniors, to be fair—are leaving for cities with better amenities, like nearby schools. Garrett and Dallas ISD believe the demographic trends pencil out to support a few new campuses downtown. Whether that triggers more housing for families nearby is another matter.
“I think schools are catalytic, you see people moving for schools all the time,” she said. “The more demand the school creates, the more the economics of building the housing product will make sense. But the true trajectory is getting to the place of what the market demands, and that’s the demographic of young professionals that started this generation as pioneers are now getting married and having kids” and need appropriate housing with enough bedrooms. That does not exist downtown.
Nevertheless, it’s still early. Dallas ISD’s Citizens Bond Steering Committee just held its first meeting.