ARLINGTON — Gunn Junior High School is getting a new lease on life as it approaches its 50th birthday.

Construction surrounds the campus. Sidewalks and plants are coated in dirt. Scaffolds scale the outside walls. Workers wearing hard hats walk in and out of the building and carefully drive construction equipment around the school’s back parking lot.

The orchestrated chaos is for a good reason: Gunn Junior High is being transformed into an arts and dual language academy. Gunn is part of more than 90 projects that Arlington ISD voters approved in November 2019, when they signed off on a $966 million bond.

Administrators view the bond as a way to modernize Arlington ISD’s oldest campuses and standardize their schools, but it is also a step forward toward giving students equitable access to learning opportunities they may not otherwise have.

“Regardless of where they’re at in Arlington — whether it’s in East Arlington, where we have more of the aging infrastructure, or whether they might be in Southeast Arlington where we have the newer infrastructure — they all have the same access to equal facilities, even down to playgrounds,” said Kelly Horn, assistant superintendent of facility services.

The bulk of the nearly $1 billion bond is dedicated to facilities, one of four areas in which projects fall. The other three are transportation, fine arts, and safety, security and technology.

District officials have said the tax rate will not rise to cover the bond, which is monitored by the 11-member Citizens Bond Oversight Committee. However, voters approved an 8.84 cent tax rate increase in 2020 that the district said was to increase teacher and staff pay and access additional state funding.

The 2019-20 school year tax rate was nearly $1.30 and would generate almost $420.4 million in revenue. The current tax rate is almost $1.39 per $100 of valuation. It is projected to bring in more than $449 million to the district — an increase of $28.6 million.

The current average taxable value of a home in Arlington ISD is $184,025. That homeowner would pay $2,553 in property taxes — a $140 increase from last school year.

Two other rates — the maintenance-and-operations rate and the debt service rate — make up the overall tax rate. The current maintenance-and-operations rate is almost $1.09 and the debt service rate is 30 cents. In the 2019-20 school year, the maintenance-and-operations rate was lower at 97 cents while the debt service rate was higher at almost 33 cents.

Arlington ISD 2019 bond overview

Arlington ISD voters approved a $966 million bond Nov. 5, 2019. Every campus in the district will see some sort of renovation to standardize schools. It is expected to be completed in late 2025. Here’s an overview of the projects:

  • Rebuild four aging schools
  • Renovate and build additions to offer full-day Pre-K
  • Construct fine arts and dual academies at the junior high and high school levels
  • Renovate all campuses
  • New playgrounds and shade structures at all elementaries
  • Expand the Dan Dipert Career + Technical Center to meet the program’s growing demand
  • Renovate the athletic field at Martin High School, creating a third district-wide competition field and improvements Wilemon and Cravens Fields
  • Upgrades athletic and fine arts facilities at all secondary schools
  • Classroom additions at some campuses
  • New fine arts instruments, uniforms and equipment
  • New school buses and other vehicles
  • More security cameras and upgrades at all facilities
  • Upgrade network infrastructure and replace staff and student devices

Arlington ISD’s certified taxable value slightly increased from 2019 to 2020, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District. Last year, the value was $32 billion and, in 2019, it was $31.9 billion.

The last time Arlington ISD’s tax rate increased was in 2014 after voters approved a $663 million bond. The rate increased to almost $1.39 for the 2014-15 school year then increased one more time the following year to $1.41. The 2013-14 rate was $1.29.

Construction will take place over five phases. The first phase started in late 2019. The bond work is expected to be completed in late 2025, according to the district.

Bonds like this are mostly focused on brick-and-mortar issues. Gunn Junior High Principal Matt Varnell doesn’t see it in just that way.

“One of the things projects like this do is they help us celebrate the way kids learn best. It used to be the kids just sat in a desk in a row and they did their work — and that was it,” Varnell said. “What we know about learning now is that it has to be interactive, it has to be engaging and we can’t have one size fits all.”

In an arts and dual language academy, half of instruction is in English and the other half is in Spanish and art-based projects are integrated into lessons. Currently, three Arlington ISD elementary schools use this model. One of them is Corey Academy of Fine Arts and Dual Language, which feeds directly into Gunn Junior High.

Arlington ISD offers other specialized campuses and programs, including those concentrated on science and technology, career and technical education and college readiness. 

“Their focus is really on acknowledging the idea that there’s not one way to be smart and there’s not one way to be successful. Every single kid has an avenue through which they can succeed,” Varnell said. “We believe the question has changed from, ‘How smart are you?’ — which is kind of what our standardized testing measures — to, ‘How are you smart?’ ”

Construction crews work to complete Gunn Junior High School’s addition on Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Arlington. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

One area Arlington ISD plans to beef up through the bond is its career and technical spaces. The bond tabbed renovations at Arlington Bowie, Lamar and Seguin high schools to create welding, construction or culinary labs, depending on what the campuses needed. 

Those career and technical programs help keep students who are interested in gaining more practical skills in school, Horn said. It also acts as a way to develop the local workforce and keep them in Arlington, he added.

“If all they want to do is weld, well then, let’s create a welding program that allows them to continue and graduate and maybe math becomes more interesting if they apply math to welding,” the assistant superintendent said, noting Arlington ISD’s welding program is huge.

Varnell pointed out the district’s specialized programs take down barriers to success. In career and technical programs, students graduate with a certificate in their chosen field and can go straight to work or continue to develop their skills at a college or technical school. 

One hurdle Arlington ISD is attempting to lower for its specialized programs is transportation. In the 2019 bond, nearly $15.5 million was tabbed for that area. The district has increased its fleet of vehicles, including SUVs, vans and cars to ensure students can get to their campus.

Construction crews work to complete Gunn Junior High School’s new cafeteria on Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Arlington. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

“It’s an important part because, without that, a lot of our families couldn’t get here,” Varnell said.

Both administrators boiled the bond to a single word — opportunity. The bond’s price tag can induce sticker shock, but they said it gives students access to avenues to improve their lives through education.

“From my perspective, as a campus principal, a bond like this is really about students,” Varnell said. “It is about allowing students to have the best instruction that we can give them and to allow them to be the best possible version of themselves.”

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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