Judge Wortham says voters may have been misled, halts South Park destruction

David Yates Aug. 4, 2009, 6:27am

Nostalgic South Park graduates will see their former school stand for at least a few more months, as Judge Bob Wortham has granted the Beaumont Heritage Society's request for a temporary injunction.

A hearing to enjoin Beaumont Independent School District from demolishing South Park Middle School was held last week in Judge Wortham's 58th District Court.

On Monday, Aug. 3, the judge determined that evidence suggested voters may have been misled by the district in the 2007 bond election. He set a hearing for a permanent injunction for Sept. 21.

BISD planned to raze the 86-year-old South Park campus this summer and begin construction on a new $42 million middle school as part of a recent $389 million bond project.

Even with such a high price attached to the project, district officials have publically stated that renovating the aging structure that once housed South Park High School would be even more costly than building a new school.

At least one local engineer disagreed with BISD's plan.

During the July hearing, Sina Nejad of Sigma Engineers testified that every "intelligent tax payer" living in Beaumont should be "offended" that the school district wants to raze a structurally-sound building and replace it with a more expensive facility.

Conversely, BISD Superintendant Carrol Thomas testified that it would be 25 percent more expensive to renovate South Park rather than raze the school and spend $42 million to build a new one.

Nejad also testified that the only way it would be more expensive to renovate is if the district put "gold-plated knobs" on every door.

In early July, the Beaumont Heritage Society filed and obtained a temporary restraining order, alleging BISD misled voters during the district's recent $389 million bond issue.

The society claims that pamphlets distributed by the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce leading up the bond election stated the district would not tear the school down but planned to renovate it.

Michael Getz, attorney for the Heritage Society, said voters relied on that information when approving the bond.

In response to Getz's assertions, Thomas testified the district was not responsible for the content in the pamphlets, which he claimed were put together and printed by a local newspaper, The Examiner.

But the publisher of The Examiner, Don Dodd, testified that the content for the pamphlets was sent to the paper via e-mail from the district's former public relations officer.

But the superintendent maintained he had no knowledge of any school officials disseminating such information and said several school personnel did, however, choose to campaign for the bond in an unofficial manner.

Although South Park weathered three of the area's worst hurricanes and has stood since 1923, BISD claims the building cannot accommodate an expected influx of new middle school students.

However, testimony and court documents show that the school's attendance has dramatically declined in recent years and would, if left standing, bottom out at around 400 students.

The school currently has a capacity of 30 classrooms.

On several occasions, Getz has publically claimed that BISD never bothered to perform a solid cost effective study on the difference between demolishing versus renovating the school.

Nejad, who examined some of the structural studies the district paid to have done, said several discrepancies he found in the reports caused him to question the reliability of the company that did the studies.

Nejad testified that he attempted to examine South Park for himself, but was blocked by BISD's council and instructed to leave the school's premises.

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