BISD projects advance during pandemic

A predictable side benefit of the coronavirus pandemic is becoming increasingly evident all over town.

For the first time, all of the Brownsville Independent School District’s nearly 60 campuses and other facilities are completely empty all at the same time, presenting an uncommon opportunity to fix everything that needs fixing before BISD’s 43,000 students return to actual classrooms when it is safe to do so.

“We haven’t stopped working, we’re an essential business. We’ve been here every day,” District Architect Manuel Hinojosa said of the BISD Facilities Department.

Hinojosa and a team of two project managers, two inspectors and one clerical person are supervising 10s of millions of dollars in BISD construction, much of it started before the pandemic but an increasing amount coming under contract recently. The facilities department is under Nellie Cantu, deputy superintendent for Business & Operations, who Hinojosa credited with steady ovesight.

Hinojosa said there’s been high interest in BISD projects. Contractors are hungry for work and are bidding on projects at a higher volume than usually happens, he said.

As a result, roofs are getting replaced, parking lots paved, interior lighting upgraded and HVAC systems improved everywhere they need it, Hinojosa said.

Luckily for Brownsville, BISD was already in the middle of upgrading facilities across the board for the benefit of students when the pandemic arrived in March. Government intervention and action by the Federal Reserve to help the economy in the face of unprecedented job losses caused interest rates to sink to historic lows, also benefiting BISD.

The most visible project at this point is the $8.41 million new gymnasium at Hanna Early College High School, now 85% complete.

But projects are more-or-less equitably spread across the district, with Sams Memorial Stadium set to receive $7 million in improvements to restrooms, concession stands and parking areas. The stadium itself won’t be touched, but 280 new parking spaces will be added along Elizabeth Street, with a new facade facing Elizabeth and one of two 1920s-era gas stations remaining in the city to be preserved as part of the project. BISD has aquired abandoned store front along Elizabeth Street to convert into parking spaces. The project is still in the design phase.

Hinojosa is a preservation architect and takes a great interest in the historical aspects of the work he is doing for BISD. He is in his first year as a public-sector architect after many years in the private sector.

“Brownsville is rich in historical material and BISD is a major part of the history of Brownsville,” he said.

The pandemic has allowed master planning of the Canales Elementary School campus along International Boulevard. With children absent, several contractors can be on-site at the same time, and it’s easier to address arcitectural aesthetics and turn Canales into a showcase campus, Hinojosa said. Just before the pandemic, Canales doubled in size, accepting students from Longoria Elementary, which closed.

Meanwhile, mini-gyms at 30 elementary campuses will be receiving air conditioning. The BISD Board of Trustees approved the first phase of 10 schools at its most recent meeting.

The Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center, El Jardin, Russell, Sharp and Yturria elementary schools, and the Cummings CTE Center are receiving new roofs, while Martin, Villa Nueva, Aiken, Canales, Cromack, Del Castillo and El Jardin elementaries, along with Faulk and Stell middle schools are receiving new canopies.

Paving projects are ongoing at various campuses.

Meanwhile, restrooms and concession stands are being added to the stadium at Veterans Memorial Early College High School, and the HVAC system and LED lighting at Rivera are being upgraded. Similar upgrades at Hanna have been ongoing. Pace and Porter earlier got new fine arts auditoriums.