By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
In February 1999 administrators printed flyers in English and Spanish for students at Lamar, Lee and Sherman elementary schools to take home to their parents. It was an invitation to a presentation regarding a proposed "relief" school.
For years HISD officials had pondered replacing Lamar, an aging brick facility that sits on 2.2 acres in a largely low-income residential area. The building has chronic structural woes that have bedeviled past efforts at repair.
Equally troublesome, the school-age population in that part of northside has shifted, creating lopsided enrollments in schools. Lee Elementary, six blocks west of Lamar, has dwindled to a mere 236 students, while Sherman, to the east, is bursting at the seams, with enrollment at 721.
Lamar itself has dropped from 499 students in 1994 to 310 today. For more than ten years officials have contemplated folding Lamar and Lee into one new school, a concept that took a giant leap in 1998 with the passage of the $678 million bond issue for districtwide construction.
HISD pegged more than $8 million for a Lamar/Lee replacement school to open in the fall of 2001. Such a facility, with a capacity for 850 students, would most likely absorb some students from overcrowded Sherman.
Flush with construction money, HISD sought to "acquire a site as centrally located as possible and affect as few people as possible, in an area within walking distance to the school," says Gary Hansel, the district's manager of real estate acquisition.
At the February meeting in Lamar's cafeteria, officials told parents they were seeking a site for the new school. They dutifully told of site requirements, demographics and timelines for construction. Then they opened the forum for comment, finding parents warm to the prospect of a new "state-of-the-art" campus for their children.
By May officials had made a decision: The district would acquire the three blocks adjoining Lamar to the south, a more than seven-acre tract that included Chestnut, Everett and Freeman streets, between Henry and Quitman. The plan would displace people from 31 houses, as well as a Jehovah's Witnesses' church, a Texaco station and a salvage yard, but would disrupt fewer students than other sites considered, officials said.
The plan was unveiled in another meeting for school parents at Lamar's cafeteria. Hansel says it was soundly approved by those present. That lack of dissenting voices was not surprising.
Blissfully ignorant of these proceedings were the vast majority of residents to be displaced. To notify the community of this critical issue for its future, the district didn't bother to mail notices to residents, or even to distribute flyers or post signs beyond the school grounds. Instead, the couriers were again students, some of them as young as six years old, who were told to take the notices home to their parents. It is unknown how many actually got delivered.
And for residents without school-age children, such as the many retirees in the affected homes, there was no notice whatsoever about that most important meeting.
"What about us? We don't have any children," Mary Morín says about the courier kids. "That's not professional. I'm not going to give a flyer to a child and say, 'Take this home to your parents.' "
Since learning of the district's plan to buy them out, shell-shocked residents have witnessed the macabre spectacle of the death of a community. They have marked its slow disintegration with equal parts mourning and mistrust, seething behind pastel-colored drapes as they watch a succession of neighbors peddle keepsakes in ad hoc yard sales, board up their windows and drive away forever.
Residents' initial ire toward those they considered to have sold out has been replaced by numbness as more people leave, and has been tempered by the realization that they could be next.
The heavy air of defeat contrasts starkly with the expansive sense of hope and community the people brought with them in the 1950s and '60s.
Some newcomers grew up nearby, dreaming of the day they might own one of the circa-1910 homes in the shadow of downtown. Others came from places such as San Antonio and Mexico to work in the railway yards, or to ply careers as merchants, teachers and maintenance workers.
In recent years, signs of aging have become manifest. Several houses have been converted into rental units that lack the fresh paint, tidy yards and other hallmarks of a homeowner's pride. A used car dealership on Freeman Street that once flourished is now an overflowing salvage yard of rusty engine parts, heaps of tires and the sickly-hued hulls of old-model sedans.
But even as parts of the neighborhood have lost their luster, residents such as the Moríns viewed their empty nest as a blank slate on which to fashion the home of their dreams.
"I put everything I had in here, after the kids were gone," says Pedro. He invites a visitor to tread on the flawless carpet of grass in the front yard to feel the lushness for himself. "I was going to paint [the house] this year. But I ain't going to be repainting now. What's the sense?"
Several of the affected homeowners contend that HISD did not adhere to its two basic guidelines for school expansion: "The District conducts a community meeting to announce the need for a new school and to discuss the targeted area," and "The Site Committee's recommendation is then presented to the community for questions and comments."
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