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Dallas To Build a $50-Million 'Super-Magnet' High School

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Dallas--The Dallas Independent School District is planning to build the best little schoolhouse in Texas.

And, as with so much else in Dallas, big business played a big part in the decision to build a $50-million "super-magnet" high school, which may eventually house more than 4,000 students.

Before it is complete, the project will involve politicians and builders, developers and realtors, bankers and businessmen. It will require a special act of the Texas legislature and has already spawned a national sales campaign to attract potential buyers for one of the largest sites left for development in downtown urban America.

And, supporters of the new school say, it will save operating funds by eliminating administrative duplication and will offer students a wider variety of courses than is now available in any of the district's high schools. It is less certain whether the new school will enhance desegregation or attract middle-class whites back into the system.

But the aura of growth and the continued belief that good times lie ahead drive Dallas business leaders to think big, and that infects those around them.

'Dynamic, Optimistic, and Bold'

"The Dallas area is dynamic, optimistic, and bold in its thinking," said Walter Humann, the Hunt Oil Co. executive who chaired the panel that recommended building the super-magnet. "We need that mag-net to attract people back into the school system.

"I'm a very firm believer that if you think long and hard enough, you can accomplish both objectives: to be cost-effective and bold-minded."

The catalyst for this project materialized more than a year ago in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders, who was presiding over a hearing on proposed changes in the district's 1976 school-desegregation plan.

The district, which was 55 percent white 10 years ago, is now made up mostly of students from minority groups; 50 percent of its students are black and 20 percent are Hispanic. The 1976 desegregation order under which the system operates did not call for mandatory busing of high-school students, and many of the district's 20 comprehensive high schools are racially isolated because of housing patterns.

The magnet high schools--which number seven this year--were established in response to the 1976 order, but have not attracted the ethnically diverse student bodies that school officials hoped for. Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented in most of the magnet schools.

During last year's hearing, Judge Sanders asked school officials if they could improve integration of the district's magnet high schools by placing most or all of them on a single campus to create a new school similar to Dallas's Skyline High School. Skyline is a nationally known career-development complex enrolling about 4,000 students in such diverse areas as building trades, aviation, computer science, and fashion design.

"The judge threw out some suggestions to stimulate our thinking," said Larry Ascough, the Dallas school official who coordinated much of the business community's involvement in the project. "He was sold on the magnet concept as an educational tool and also as one having merits for desegregation."

Even before the judge made his suggestion, school officials were cognizant of the need to improve the district's magnet schools, most of which had been established in older, previously closed buildings.

"As with most things, nobody sat down and dreamed it up," Mr. Ascough said. "It came from several directions."

At the same time, the community advisory committees for the magnet schools were talking about the need to renovate the facilities and were voicing concern that the small size of several of the schools was severely limiting the range of academic offerings available to students.

"Some of them said we ought to look at combining some of the schools or build an academic center to serve all of them," Mr. Ascough said.

School officials began exploring the possibilities. One option was to use schools in the North Dallas area that were being emptied or could be closed because of the declining enrollment in that predominantly white section of the city.

Consolidate and Upgrade

Representatives of the city's black and Hispanic communities generally endorsed the proposal to consolidate and upgrade the magnet schools but objected to the North Dallas site, saying it was too far to go for the minority students who make up the bulk of the magnet-school enrollment. Judge Sanders agreed, decreeing that any new magnet school would have to be placed within a two-mile radius of the central business district.

Because of Skyline High School's successful track record in both instruction and desegregation, school officials also considered closing Skyline's neighborhood attendance zone and moving the magnet programs to Skyline's career-development center. But, under pressure from parents in that area, the board rejected the idea.

"Eventually, we ended up asking the judge to allow us to consider studying it with the community advisory committees, which are the backbone of those magnet-school programs," Mr. Ascough said. The committees include many of the city's top business executives.

"The committees said they thought it would be great to have a 'superfacility,' depending on where it is. Each group involved had its own view on that issue," Mr. Ascough said. Those involved with the arts magnet did not want to leave the arts district; business people wanted their school to stay downtown; advisers to the law magnet wanted to remain near to City Hall and the courts; committee members for the health magnet wanted to stay close to Baylor Hospital.

And through it all ran the Trinity River, which separates predominantly white North Dallas from the Oak Cliff section to the southwest, which is populated primarily by members of minority groups.

"Anglo members were concerned that if the judge wants a good balance, then Anglo students would have to come from north of the river, and even though the primary site was just across the bridge, the Trinity was a psychological barrier that would inhibit the school's ability to attract kids," Mr. Ascough said. "Others feel a good program anywhere will attract kids."

The one thing committee members agreed on was the logical solution to the problem: Build a new school. The potential financing for the project was there; the district could sell valuable downtown real estate and take the money to construct the new facility.

Feasibility Study

The committee commissioned an architectural firm to conduct a feasibility study for the project. The result was a $35-million to $50-million complex with a "creative-financing" package attached.

Designed to serve at least 4,000 students in grades 9 through 12, the "super-school" would consolidate existing magnet programs in business, law, health, human services, transportation, science and technology, and programs for talented and gifted students. The arts magnet might also be moved into the new complex.

Although the school would have a single library and merged departments in the basic academic subjects such as English, mathematics, and science, each of the magnet programs would have a separate wing or building and a separate identity, as planners envision it. The typical student would probably spend half of each day in academic classes offered schoolwide and the other half in specialized classes.

At a time when most of the nation's school systems are retrenching because of declining enrollment and financial difficulties, the Dallas school board, backed by the city's business community, has promised to select the site for the new multimillion-dollar magnet this month.

The duplication of a variety of services at small magnet high schools has resulted in inefficiency, said Mr. Humann, the oil-company executive. The facilities are fairly old and badly in need of renovation. Building a new school was a solution that was "better than the sum of its individual parts."

"When you take a look at the bottom line, the district can save $2 million to $3 million a year in operating expenses by centralizing the magnet schools," Mr. Humann said. "The main question was how to finance it. We went under the assumption that Dallas could not and should not try to float a major bond issue to build a centralized magnet."

Dallas school officials were quick to admit that they saw little chance of passing a bond issue to finance a new school. The solution, business and school leaders agreed, was to sell valuable downtown real estate.

While construction has slowed to a standstill in many American cities, downtown Dallas is booming. With more than a dozen major office buildings currently under construction, real-estate analysts believe there is still a significant demand for land in the city. The question is not whether the land will sell, they say, but when it will sell at the best price.

"My feeling is that the property is extremely valuable," Mr. Humann said. "You could probably sell it today, but you'd sell it at a discount" because of high interest rates.

An independent appraiser estimates that three downtown tracts owned by the school system are worth at least $36 million. These tracts on the eastern edge of downtown Dallas currently house the district's magnet high schools for transportation and business.

"We're doing a nationwide search to let it be known that both sites are for sale," said Superintendent Linus Wright. According to Mr. Wright, letters describing the real estate have been sent to at least 25 of the largest developers in the U.S. to see whether they are "interested now or somewhere down the line" in buying the land. Two developers have already expressed interest in buying the transportation magnet location, which encompasses the two smaller tracts.

The business magnet is on a 5.4-acre site. Together with two adjacent properties that are owned by the city and a private developer, the parcel is the "largest single available site for development in a central business section of any major American city," the superintendent said.

Mr. Wright said the district intends to "capitalize on the peak market" to obtain the best possible price for the property. Under state law, the school system must sell the land to the highest bidder. But selling the land is only the first hurdle.

"We need to use the property until the new facilities are complete,'' said Robby Collins, the Dallas district's lobbyist in the state legislature. The dilemma is that the district also needs funds from the land sale to finance the new construction. However, no developer would be willing to pay the school system for valuable land that he would not be able to use for two or three years, real-estate experts say.

Therefore, school officials intend to ask the Texas legislature to enact one-time legislation allowing the Dallas district to sell revenue bonds to finance the project. Under this plan, the bonds would be issued after a developer has agreed to buy the land.

Mr. Collins said he anticipates no problem with the proposal. "I don't see why anyone would oppose it, because it makes good sense for the school district and the taxpayers."

Meanwhile, the school board is preparing to choose between two sites proposed by the community advisory committee--the current site of the arts magnet high school in the newly created downtown arts district or the site in Oak Cliff across the Trinity River from downtown Dallas. If the board members choose the 4.37-acre arts magnet site, the district would have to construct a high-rise magnet school. The 21.5-acre Oak Cliff site, on the other hand, could accommodate a community-college-style campus to house the magnet programs.

While only two board members have publicly taken a stand on the site selection, a majority have said privately that they are prepared to vote for the Oak Cliff site, which the district purchased in 1976 with the intention of building a magnet school.

'Super Recruiting'

Mr. Wright says it will take "super recruiting to overcome the obstacles" that face the new magnet school.

According to a public-opinion survey conducted in conjunction with the feasibility study, locating the district's magnet schools on a single site near downtown probably would not help desegregate the schools. The market survey found that neither of the two proposed sites is very appealing to most people in the school system--and locating a new magnet in Oak Cliff would make the task of attracting white students even more difficult.

"We have an uphill climb to sell the magnet school," Mr. Wright conceded. But he and other school officials are confident they can overcome the problems.

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