Coppell's planning and zoning commission has recommended denying the rezoning request of a public charter school seeking to open in the city amid heavy neighborhood opposition.
During a meeting Thursday that lasted more than four hours, residents living near the proposed Manara Academy elementary school lined up one by one to speak against its planned opening in August.
They told commissioners that if the school is allowed to open with 326 students in the former Christ Our Savior Lutheran school building along Heartz Road, it will cause traffic and safety problems. They also expressed concerns that many of the school's students live outside the city and will be bused in.
Manara says that it will be the first in the state to offer expeditionary learning, a hands-on curriculum featuring lots of field trips. It also would be one of the few in the state offering Arabic and French classes. In Arabic, manara means beacon or lighthouse.
Though leaders from the Islamic Center of Irving promoted the school, its leaders emphasize that it is public and not religious.
Commissioners voted 3-3, meaning that the school's bid to obtain a revised special-use permit to open in the city was denied. One member was absent.
"I felt it was a life safety issue," said commissioner Gregory Frnka, who backed denying the school's request.
But Anna Kittrell, a commissioner who supported the school, said it made sense to allow Manara to open in a building that was designed primarily as a school.
She also pointed out that the Lutheran school previously operating in the building had a higher enrollment than Manara, of about 400 students.
"This has always been a school – it's not that this is a new thing," she said. "[Manara] is a school and it's a nice addition to our community. I feel like we are a global village."
City staff had recommended approval of the school's rezoning request, under several conditions that included designing a separate bus loop.
Because of the denial the school needs a supermajority vote of six of the seven Coppell City Council members to obtain its permit. City officials said they probably will call a special meeting in June to address the rezoning if Manara appeals the denial.
The church, which is leasing its building to Manara for a year, already holds a permit allowing a church and a school to operate at the site.
Religion was not mentioned at the meeting, except when commission chairman Edmund Haas asked the school principal what type of activities would be held and whether they'd hold Christmas parties.
During the meeting, some residents displayed aerial pictures of the school labeled with problem areas. Others said increased traffic could mean dangerous levels of carbon emissions or raise the risk of a child being hit by a car.
"Increased traffic flow from the school will negatively impact the high standards of our neighborhood and the city of Coppell and bring safety concerns for our residents," said Wes Mays, the president of the Westbury Manor Homeowners Association.
Meanwhile, teachers and parents who plan to send their children to the school said its unique approach would make it an asset to the community. Most said they lived outside Coppell. One woman asked: "Is it really the traffic?"
Homeowners at times became emotional.
Safwat Ismail said he plans to walk his two children to the school. He referred to himself as a "Lone Ranger" as a Coppell resident supporting the school.
"I don't understand what's the big fuss about the traffic and safety," he said. "It's almost like the biggest snow job in the world as far as the case that these folks have...at the end of the day it doesn't hold water."
After he spoke, resident Deanie Jaime turned and faced him during her speech.
"I want to make sure the safety of my children is accounted for," she said. "The more people on the road, the more dangerous it is for my family. Mr. Ismail, the safety of my children is not a snow job."
Out of 53 property owners living within 200 feet of the school, 27 reported that they opposed the school and zero supported it, city officials said. They also said that 19 people from outside the community said they opposed the school and none supported it.
However, on Thursday night 18 spoke in favor of the school and 17 opposed it, according to the city.
Neighbors said they were concerned that only about 22 of the school's students are from Coppell and that most students will be entering the city from the south, including from Irving. School leaders originally intended to find a school site in Irving, where civic leaders including Mayor Herbert Gears backed their application to the Texas Education Agency.
Ruben Ramirez of Carrollton told commissioners he wanted to find a quality school for his two daughters and that's why he chose Manara.
"We're looking for a better education," he told them. "Give us the opportunity and see how that works."