Learning institute denied expansion

Michelle Wulfson | The ItemRoxie Douglas Learning Institute director Carmen Irving and secretary and board member Letha Thompson are excited to move forward with renovating their existing building, as well as adding on to an existing structure at the back of the property in order to be able to accommodate more students in need. 

What was supposed to be an exciting city council meeting towards the expansion of the Roxie Douglas Learning Institute, took a turn for the unexpected on Wednesday evening, effecting the nonprofit’s ability to expand their reach to at-risk students in the community.

In February, Roxie Douglas Learning Institute director Carmen Irving requested that the city of Huntsville sell the institute the neighboring vacant property, located at 1515 10th Street, in order to add an additional building between Irving’s two existing properties. Initially, the request had been approved unanimously by the city council, authorizing city manager Aron Kulhavy to negotiate the transaction, however, as a shock to Irving – who believed the deal to have been done – Tuesday’s city council meeting took away from her favor.

“Not in agreement with the possible sale, the city manager found every reason to not allow the institute to buy the property that has sat for 25 years with no improvement, no sewage work, no repair to the flooding, just a piece of property serving no purpose,” Irving said.

Discussions began with the council’s concerns over the property’s stance in a flood plain, which developed into questions as to whether the proposed structure would be able to meet the city’s building codes. The institute would have to implement a proper retention system and anchoring structure design to avoid the building washing away. It was Irving’s vision to utilize French drains around the property’s boundaries, redirecting any flooding to a drainage area across the street. However, the property’s history as a major flood zone and the monumental price that it would likely cost the nonprofit, cast a shadow of doubt for the majority of the council members.

“I think it would be a disservice to sell this property or lease it to Mrs. Irving, because it is in the floodplain,” councilman Joe Rodriquez said, though discussions of leasing it had never been discussed with Irving before.

Adding to the discourse, the property is also the location for sewer main access, which must remain available to the city. Irving’s initial request was for 20-feet, which would not encroach on the sewer easement, with a plan to purchase a larger building spanning both her property and the city’s. She then changed her plans to purchase a smaller building that would be placed on her property alone, and use the 20-feet on the city lot as parking.

“For us to insure her almost sure failure of what she is trying to achieve … I can’t be a part of that. I would rather tell her no now and let her be upset with me. This thing started out as a whole piece of property and is now down to 20 feet. It’s a recipe for disaster,” councilman Russell Humphrey said.

“The land is best to remain in the city’s hands and not developed. Because of the incumbents on it, it makes the lot not impossible, but difficult to develop, and the city’s policy is to discourage development in floodplains, not encourage it,” city manager Aaron Kulhavy said.

Irving recollects that none of her efforts to communicate with the city manager to discuss the purchase agreement were ever returned and was barred from speaking on the topic to correct the misunderstandings of her proposal prior to the vote in Tuesday’s meeting.

“It was as if they had already prepared what they were going to do,” Irving said.

Ultimately, due to concerns over the property’s placement within a major flood zone, the motion failed with a 5-4 vote and Irving rescinded the humanitarian award she had offered the city council for the deal she felt certain had been struck. Now, the property will remain untouched.

“It’s a sanctuary for the birds, trash and water,” Irving said.

The property is sentimental to Irving, who grew up living on the lot owned by the city, as well as the neighboring lot where her childhood home has been adapted into the Roxie Douglas Learning Institute. Since her mother’s passing in 1997, Irving has pled with the city to at least turn the vacant property into a park to memorialize her mother, who selflessly served the community through many facets of the city, however, that request been denied as well.

According to Irving, flooding was never a problem on the property in question until the city became involved. A small creek used to run through the side of the property that channeled water through to the creek on the other side of 10th Street that runs through Eastham Thomas Park. However, the creek was at one point removed by the city and paved as a small access road leading to a shopping center off of 11th Street, which forced the water to flood the property and create a flood plain.

“The only thing that has caused that drainage (on the property) is that they’ve closed that creek,” Irving said. “The city did this, they made this a flood plain, they did this themselves, but they’re not willing to correct it.”

So far, nothing has been done on the city’s part to correct the problem, and Irving feels frustration over the city’s use of taxpayer funds on multi-million dollar projects such as it’s own animal shelter.

“They’re building their own (animal shelter) rather than invest in the children of Huntsville, I’ll never understand that,” Irving said. “If they’re not willing to invest in our kids now, they may as well get ready for the tax payer’s money to pay for them to go to prison, because if they can’t graduate from school and get a good job, then it’s survival of the fittest. They’re going to do something to survive, whether it’s legal or illegal.”

The Roxie Douglas Learning Institute has worked with at-risk students in Huntsville Independent School District since 2006, awarding over $150,000 in scholarships to graduating students in the district. As the need for their services has grown, so has their waitlist, requiring updated and expanded facilities in order to break out of their 20-student limit.

“Some of these kids don’t even know the basics of reading and math, and the teachers have just a certain agenda to go by to where they don’t really touch the student at their need, they’re teaching the STAAR test,” said Letha Thompson, Roxie Douglas Learning Institute secretary and board member.

“We will continue remodeling the existing Institute and will continue improving the property there to benefit the children who need our assistance,” Irving said. “We’re going to open this regardless, all we want is the chance to help more than 20 people.”

Irving plans to purchase a manufactured building to attach to an additional structure at the back of her property, in addition to remodeling the existing building, that will round out the institute’s offerings to include a science center, computer lab, STAAR preparation room, library and math center.

The new building will be paid for through fundraising efforts until their goal is complete. Churches, businesses, organizations or individuals who would like to donate, are welcome to do so by mail at Roxie Douglas Scholarship Foundation & Learning Institute, P.O. Box 6283, Huntsville, TX 77342-6283.

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