At Marfa school board’s first bond workshop, safety improvements top of mind

The Marfa Independent School District Board of Trustees met this week to kick off the bond planning process, which involved reviewing the district’s numerous buildings and prioritizing projects for construction and renovation. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

MARFA — While school is officially out for summer, things are just ramping up for the Marfa Independent School District Board of Trustees and Superintendent Oscar Aguero, who will work throughout the break over the next few months to make significant progress on pursuing a school bond to pay for campus infrastructure upgrades, including some centered around school security. 

The school board is seeking to put a bond on the ballot in the upcoming general election on November 8 and will next invite members of the community to take part in the bond planning process. With numerous large-scale infrastructure projects on the horizon due to aging facilities, the district set its sights on a bond to help pay for the necessary improvements. The district, as dictated by the local I&S debt service tax rates, could request up to $45 million dollars for the bond. At this point, a final budget has not yet been established. 

On Monday night, Aguero and board members Ruben Martinez, Lori Flores, Rene Gonzales, Teresa Nuñez, Yolanda Jurado, Ernie Villarreal and Christa Marquez met with Francis Zordilla, principal at Claycomb Associates Architects, the firm assisting them in the school bond planning process, to assess priorities for new construction, renovation and demolition projects on the MISD campus. Over pizza, the group reviewed a master list of suggested district-wide improvements and analyzed the campus’s buildings via a blown-up aerial photograph.

Concerns over school safety were woven throughout discussions, with an emphasis on the need for multiple layers of security. The board discussed keyless entry, the possibility of fencing off the campus perimeter and moving administration offices to cut back on the number of visitors to school grounds. All agreed establishing a singular K-12 school — as opposed to the current, scattered footprint — would present fewer security challenges with all students under one roof. Bullet resistant glass windows and walls could be utilized to achieve the board’s goal of increased natural light and better views as well as safety, suggested Zordilla.

Nuñez said the goals of the bond project were twofold — to serve the district’s educational needs well into the future as well as protect Marfa’s students. 

“You want to secure the students within the school, but once they’re in the school you want them to have open spaces to learn within that secured area,” said Jurado of the need to balance a secure, yet accessible, learning environment.

In the wake of the recent mass school shooting in Uvalde, school security would be on the minds of the community, many board members said, and would likely lead to public support for safety strengthening measures. Jurado said the future community committee, which will be made up of eight community members and eight teachers as well as the board, would need to be educated on the particular security challenges MISD faces with their current campus setup. 

“I can’t imagine that any community member would come in, whether you have kids here or you don’t, knowing the hideous situations that are happening in our own state, that would say leave it the way it is,” said Jurado.

“We need for everybody to understand that there’s no way that we could keep our kids safe like this,” added Gonzales, who works full time as a security professional. 

MISD’s piecemeal campus consists of numerous buildings constructed and renovated across decades, making everything from security to classroom modernization a unique challenge.

“When they started adding on it was never master-planned and you can tell,” said Zordilla. 

The board is currently considering three different options for the reimagining of MISD, all of which involve building a brand-new kindergarten through 12th grade educational building. Exactly where the new K-12 school building will be located is up for debate, and board members spent a fair amount of time shuffling around various options — it could take the place of the present main campus, or go where the current elementary school stands. Existing buildings will either be renovated or demolished, and the possibility of splitting up the work into phases was floated. 

A new K-12 school would allow for state-of-the-art classrooms to be at the heart of the bond project, said Villarreal. Others agreed creating new 21st century learning spaces was a major priority. 

“That’s what will draw more parents to come back to us, more kids to come back to us,” said Villarreal.

Along a similar vein, after a quick detour to view the district’s two science labs, board members advocated labs be incorporated into the new school in order to support STEM and academics further, and current labs, which are suffering from water damage, be torn down. 

A new media center, complete with a library, which could also double as a band hall, should be a part of the new building as well, some said. Nuñez reminded the board they needed to keep in mind the renovation of Hunter Gym, which will be spearheaded by the newly-established Friends of Hunter Gym nonprofit organization, who is in a 10-year lease agreement with the district. 

Similar to the Hunter Gym, another piece of old Marfa the board recognized has historical and sentimental value to the community is the old red brick auditorium, which is currently being renovated with new seats, floors, a sound system, lighting and more. While the district originally explored the idea of expanding the auditorium stage to meet UIL one-act play requirements, it was discovered it was ultimately not feasible to do so. Nuñez resurfaced the idea on Monday, stating it might be good to throw more support behind fine arts and create a community gathering space. 

“We could host, invite the community. I mean, that could be some kind of revenue aspect too,” said Nuñez. 

But after more back and forth discussion, Aguero chimed in, stating such a project would only bloat the budget, which they were trying to trim down. 

“We’re supposed to be trying to find ways to cut and we’re adding, and we’re talking into the millions that we are adding there,” said Aguero. 

The board continued to weigh the pros and cons of spending money versus saving money on various areas of the campus. They were able to agree on a few cuts for proposed improvements. The longevity of the new construction and renovations funded by the bond was a recurring theme of the meeting. 

Flores posed the question of whether or not the district would be dealing with similar recurring issues post-construction, such as water damage to the floors. The Shorthorn Gym, which was constructed with funds from a bond passed in 2007, for example, was already experiencing issues, she said. Aguero added that the gym’s roof already had to be repaired as well. Zordilla said Claycomb Associates Architects, which will likely be awarded construction bids should the bond pass, addressed the specific issue of water damage to flooring by stating they would install vapor barriers to prevent water from coming up from the ground.

Zordilla went on to explain the board should expect costs per square foot for construction to go up from the current $410 per square foot to $490 by the end of 2022. He said typical construction timelines for a school of Marfa’s size would last around 16 months but that would likely be prolonged due to ongoing supply chain issues as a result of the pandemic. When prompted for his professional opinion as to how the board should proceed, Zordilla recommended spending $35 million on new construction and $15 million toward renovation. 

Jurado, reassessing the proposed new versus renovated spaces, noted a preliminary decision would result in new athletic facilities for the boys but not girls, and the board needing to carefully comb through everything to ensure equal treatment across student populations. The option to renovate, versus tear down, certain spaces should also be thoughtfully considered, she said. 

“We all want all shiny, brand new, but we also need to renovate some stuff to at least bring that up to par,” said Jurado. 

As the meeting wound down, the board touched on the potential public perception of the bond, which would lead to an increase in local property taxes. Nuñez, as well as Flores and Villarreal, who all serve in somewhat public-facing roles in their day jobs, said they often encounter citizens who don’t understand why they have to pay into the school district when they don’t personally know of or have any children attending the local school. Nuñez said it is the role of the community at large to step up and provide for future generations, regardless of the status of children in their household. 

“It’s our responsibility to educate the children. It’s your responsibility, my responsibility,” said Nuñez. 

The school district has until August 22 to call the election and get the bond on the ballot for the November election this coming fall. The board concluded the meeting by discussing which members of the community they would reach out to to serve on the bond community committee. The school board will seek out representatives from the city and county level. Aguero noted the board would want to incorporate “some naysayers” in order to better the process. 

“I think we’ve done really well today,” said Flores. “But I think we would do better with a committee to help us.”

The next bond workshop will involve the community committee and is set to meet Wednesday, June 22, at 5 p.m. That committee will meet a few more times throughout the summer.