by Claudia Lorena Silva, El Paso Matters
September 18, 2023
Update 3:30 p.m. Sept. 19: The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve the sale of Morehead Middle School to the city. Board secretary Isabel Hernandez was absent. The El Paso City Council expects to vote on the purchase next week.
As El Paso grapples with an influx of migrants crossing the border and potentially being released to the streets with nowhere to go, the city government is looking to purchase a vacant Westside middle school to convert it into an emergency shelter.
The El Paso Independent School District’s Board of Trustees will vote Tuesday on whether to sell Morehead Middle School to the city for $3.8 million. The meeting is at 1 p.m. at EPISD headquarters, 1014 N. Stanton.
If approved, the district will lease the property to the city for $23,500 a month until the sale is complete, according to a lease and sales agreement published by the district.
City officials say they plan to turn the school into an emergency operations center that could be used to temporarily house migrants or residents affected by disasters like flooding and fires, and an animal shelter with a community dog park.
As of Monday, the city was housing roughly 900 migrants in hotels and was preparing a temporary emergency overflow shelter at Nations-Tobin Recreation Center in Northeast El Paso.
“The (Morehead) emergency operations center may not be used year round, but continuing to spend money in hotels is a very costly operation and this way we can spend the money one time and continue to service our community in that way,” Mayor Oscar Leeser told El Paso Matters on Friday.
The city plans to purchase the 9-acre property along North Mesa Street and Confetti Drive using federal COVID-19 relief funds, which Leeser said are set to expire at the end of the year.
“That’s why it’s very important that we work with the school district and get it done now,” Leeser said.
The city also plans to use a Federal Emergency Management Agency program, which provides funding for border cities having to shelter, feed and transport migrants, to retrofit the school’s buildings for use as an emergency shelter.
During an August El Paso City Council meeting, Leeser suggested having these combined facilities could be beneficial for migrants who deal with mental health issues and trauma from their travels to the United States.
“Hopefully, when we do open the shelter on the Westside we will share it with animal services and have our asylum seekers interact with the animals and walk the animals, play with the animals and really help them with their mental health,” Leeser said during the meeting.
As of Monday, the city has not responded to emails asking how the program will work or what the next steps will be if EPISD approves the sale.
Morehead Middle School closed in 2022 as part of a 2016 bond project that merged the school with Johnson Elementary. These students now attend the newly constructed Charles Q. Murphree PK-8 school, just around the corner from Morehead.
El Paso Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino during Friday's press conference noted that the property already has many of the amenities needed to shelter families, including a kitchen, bathrooms, offices, large open spaces and a playground.
Morehead, along with Bassett Middle School, had previously been prepared by the American Red Cross to be used as overflow shelters for migrants in late December when Title 42 was expected to end, and May, when it subsequently ended.
At the time, each school had room for 1,000 people but stayed mostly empty.
Jerry Jarvis, the president of the Mesa Hills Neighborhood Association, said he has concerns about the city’s plans for the vacant school.
“So you've got literally hundreds and hundreds of little kids right next door to the migrant shelter, and it seems to me like that could be a problem,” Jarvis told El Paso Matters, citing concerns that migrants might be released to the community without a check of their backgrounds.
However, all of the migrants who stay at city shelters have been processed by the U.S. Border Patrol, gone through background checks and are allowed to remain in the country to await their immigration hearing. Most are sheltered there for a couple of days until they can secure transportation to another city.
EPISD board President Israel Irrobali said the school district held three public hearings in early September and made efforts to address safety concerns brought up by parents.
“The mayor as well as some district staff actually invited those parents to go to a campus walk-through and kind of address some concerns that they had,” Irrobali told El Paso Matters.
Jarvis said he never heard about the meetings and the Mesa Hills Neighborhood Association plans to oppose the city’s plans, starting by asking the school district to reconsider selling the property to the city in hopes it will go to a private developer.
“I think they should wait for another buyer,” he said. “You’ve got a city block on Mesa Street, one of the busiest streets in El Paso, Texas. There's got to be people who are in the business of building shopping centers and building stores and other businesses that would be interested in that property.”
Selling the Morehead property to a private developer would allow local governments, including the city and school district, to collect property tax on the land and buildings. Property owned by governments is not taxed.
Irrobali told El Paso Matters on Friday that the property has not had any additional interested buyers. EPISD listed Morehead as surplus property in December and has been trying to sell it since then.
El Paso Matters reporter Cindy Ramirez contributed to this story.