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Still in play: Downtown still a player in FWISD’s STEM academy

February 2,2015

Reposted from the Fort Worth Business Press

(Correction: the Board workshop is 5:30 p.m. Wednesday Feb. 4. This story originally contained two different meeting times.)

The Fort Worth ISD’s planned STEM academy is still possible for downtown, even though school trustees voted last fall to locate it on the West Side.

“My understanding is it ain’t over till it’s over, and there’s still the possibility of a STEM school downtown,” said Jim Johnson, administrator of the downtown tax increment finance district, which generates cash for public infrastructure based on growth in the property tax base. “After they finish pouring the concrete, then I’ll believe it.”

If it ain’t over, the downtown TIF’s wallet is on the table.

The TIF board last year approved a new project and finance plan that includes $1 million for a downtown STEM academy, which would further downtown’s goals of having more educational offerings and deepen the appeal of living in the central city for families.

Fort Worth ISD officials will meet 5:30 p.m. Wednesday Feb. 4 for an update on the bond program, with the STEM academy part of that discussion, the school district said Friday afternoon. The public meeting will be in the board meeting room, 2903 Shotts St.

Fort Worth school trustees, facing big budget overruns on the bond program voters approved in 2013, voted 7-2 in November to put the STEM on the West Side campus of the former Leonard Sixth Grade Center, now an alternative school with few students.

In the bond program, voters approved a total $73.3 million for a performing and fine arts academy and a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) academy. The STEM academy’s piece is $12.5 million, plus part of a $21 million contingency pool. The school district hasn’t put the performing arts academy or STEM out to bid yet; it postponed a decision on the performing arts academy at the same meeting it approved Leonard for the STEM.

School officials appear open to reconsidering the location of the STEM and possibly combining it with the visual and performing arts academy, depending on what a re-assessment of construction cost estimates looks like when it comes back from the outside firm responsible for managing the program.

“It’s in limbo right now,” said trustee Ashley Paz, who voted for the Leonard site at the November meeting.

“It’s not a go for Leonard yet,” trustee Christene Moss, who voted against the Leonard location and said she wanted the STEM to be on the East Side, said.

The visual and performing arts academy also will be a part of the Wednesday workshop, the school district said.

Since the November vote, the increasingly frustrated board demanded better information about the entire package from the program manager, AECOM.

Clint Bond, spokesman for the school district, verified board members during an executive session “gave guidance to the staff to continue to study all options” in relation to the bond program.

One of the possibilities under study is putting both schools in the historic I.M. Terrell Elementary School just east of downtown.
That site is not within the downtown TIF boundary, but state law allows TIFs to finance public education facilities outside TIF boundaries, so long as they benefit the TIF.

"We were asked (by the board) to look at the feasibility of utilizing I.M. Terrell as an option for either school or a combined school," Dr. Pat Linares, the interim superintendent, said in a release accompanying the scheduling of the Feb. 4 workshop. "We will be providing the results of that study" at the Feb. 4 workshop.

Downtown Fort Worth boosters believe a STEM academy nearby could collaborate with oil and gas firms downtown and health care centers on the Near Southside. A visual and performing arts academy could collaborate with downtown arts organizations. And schools in general make downtowns more attractive places to live, said Andy Taft, president of the Downtown Fort Worth Inc. economic development nonprofit.

DFWI’s Plan 2023, issued in 2013, calls for more educational facilities in the downtown area and more collaboration between downtown interests and educational institutions. It specifically calls for a STEM campus.

Taft said DFWI recently sent an emailed memorandum of support to trustees, making the case for the STEM and performing arts academy.

Taft said he couldn’t speak for the TIF, but DFWI “would be thrilled” to have the schools nearby. Johnson, the TIF administrator, works for DFWI.

In order to access money from the TIF, the school district would have to present a proposal, and the TIF board would have to vote on it, in collaboration with the city and schools. Because it’s a public facility, potentially a “wide range of costs” could be eligible, Taft said.
It’s not clear how much the board knows about the TIF’s position. Moss and Paz both said in interviews they didn’t know about the money.

Taft said DFWI had spoken to former Superintendent Walter Dansby, before his departure, about the central city’s interest.

“There was talk about DFWI helping financially, fundraising” to help the schools after their openings, Taft said. “Some of our members volunteered” to help raise money.

Scott Nishimura