As a district, San Antonio Independent School District doesn’t have many peers, with its stock of aging buildings, historic properties, and an obligation to follow a strict unified development code. The district hasn’t built a brand new school since the early 2000s, and more than half of the campuses have been identified as in need of improvements.

Now, the bulk of construction from the district’s 2016 bond is set to begin as a slate of community meetings are held to gather input on how schools can best adapt to construction. For a full list of dates and times for bond project meetings, click here.

The bond’s 13 projects were chosen because they exhibited the greatest need for renovations. The project list contains seven high schools, four middle schools, and two elementary schools.

“[They are] schools that were either built or air-conditioned out of the 1968 bond program,” said SAISD Associate Superintendent of Construction Services Kamal ElHabr. “Those were kind of the first schools in this district that were air-conditioned and we still have most of the air-condition[ing systems] that are 40 years old. … When you walk through those facilities, those are the oldest kitchens in the building, the oldest plumbing.”

After voters passed the $450 million request in November 2016, district officials embarked on a design process and plotted to ensure all plans coincide with the academic needs of each campus.

Since that time, some schools switched from operating as elementary schools to also serving middle school students, thus transforming the needs of the school facility. The district also had to adjust for growth at the Fox Tech campus, where initial estimates had 400 students on campus, and now enrollment is closer to 1,200.

The bond’s first work began at Irving Middle School this past summer, before its conversion to become a dual-language academy at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

“We’ve done very limited construction, but it is all about to get going,” ElHabr said.

In November, SAISD plans to start foundation work at 86-year-old Jefferson High School, known for its distinctive architecture but plagued by major structural issues in the main gym and cafeteria. The month after, construction will likely begin at J.T. Brackenridge Elementary and Bowden Academy, where the district will enclose open space underneath stilted buildings to create greater classroom space.

The biggest project is taking place at 81-year-old Burbank High School, where the district is constructing a new main building. ElHabr estimates the process will take two years of construction on the new facility, and then an additional year of demolition of older buildings and construction of athletic facilities in their place. Estimated completion of the entire Burbank project is set for spring 2022.

At Lanier and Brackenridge high schools, SAISD will gut the interior of the buildings. Director of Planning and Construction Kedrick Wright said even though no new construction will occur, it will feel like a brand new building for students and teachers.

Brackenridge High School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The goal is to have all construction underway by the first or second quarter of 2019.

The district already is looking at future needs for the next bond, projected to be called sometime in 2020. SAISD has identified about 40 campuses that illustrate the “next round of needs,” ElHabr said, and contain pre-World War II buildings that had air conditioning installed in the late 1980s.

Much of the work will come from updating old infrastructure to meet 21st-century student needs.

“Most of our older elementaries don’t have science rooms, and now science is taught in fourth and fifth grades,” ElHabr said. “We make do by taking a classroom, putting science tables in it, fixing the sink, and calling it a science lab, which is really not the proper way to address that in a proper education environment.”

Work at the 40 campuses would likely be split into two bonds, ElHabr said.

SAISD faces a number of facilities challenges that many other Texas school districts do not. Many of the district’s buildings are old – Mission Academy is the newest campus, and it was built in the early 2000s. San Antonio’s urban core district has to contend with smaller school lots, historic buildings, and a limiting city code.

“In San Antonio, it is probably more restrictive than any other core cities around us,” ElHabr said.

Wright came to SAISD after working in Houston ISD, where new construction was common.

“Houston ISD was all existing campuses [like SAISD] with one caveat – we got to replace the campuses,” Wright said. “We weren’t faced with the unique challenges with either historic campuses or campuses with a lot of value in the communities.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.