Stories to follow in 2019: FBISD incurs millions in added costs awaiting ruling on reburial of remains

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As construction continues at Fort Bend ISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center where historic human remains were discovered in February, the project is costing more money for the district while the case is tied up in court.

According to legal documents, in May when the district filed a petition seeking court approval to exhume the bodies of the 95 individuals believed to have been indentured servants in the convict leasing system, the petition specifically stated the district was not seeking removal of any dedication of the land for cemetery purposes.

On Nov. 7, the district filed a new petition requesting court approval to remove the cemetery designation legally attributed to the property. The petition also requested court approval to reinter the bodies at the nearby Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery.

“The district and the city of Sugar Land reached an agreement to bury the remains in a city-owned cemetery in October,” FBISD Board President Jason Burdine said in a statement. “The only hold up now is that we need approval from the court. Further delay will leave the remains without a final resting place and will add millions of dollars of unbudgeted costs to the project.”

The district’s agreement with Sugar Land allows for reinterment of the remains in the city-owned Old Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery, located adjacent to the construction site less than a mile away. However, the agreement does not require the district to rebury the remains there, and the judge must still grant permission for reburial.

The district filed a supplemental petition Dec. 17 requesting an expedited order for its Nov. 7 petition regarding the cemetery designation, citing financial and timing issues for the school’s opening in the court document.

As of Dec. 19, the Texas Historical Commission, the Fort Bend County Historical Commission, Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, the Fort Bend County Judge and Gov. Greg Abbott  have been  invited to review the case, according to court documents filed by presiding Judge James Shoemake of Fort Bend County’s 434th District Court.

Costly construction delays

The $58 million career and technical center is part of the district’s 2014 bond program and is scheduled to open on time in 2019 as construction is ongoing in areas unaffected by the discovery, according to a release from the district.

However, cost increases associated with the delays and potential redesign are increasing each month as FBISD has already incurred about $5.5 million in costs for construction delays, archaeological observation, investigation, exhumation and historical analysis, according to the district. Further delays could result in up to $8.5 million in additional costs to ensure the rest of the campus can open on schedule.

Burdine said since the district is not a perpetual care facility, the school is not  the most appropriate final resting place.

“The district’s mission is to educate students,” he said in a statement. “It is legally prohibited from operating a cemetery and we need the court to approve the plan to rebury the remains at the city cemetery without further delay.”

If the court does not grant the removal of the cemetery designation from the site and does not allow for reburial at the Imperial Prison Farm Cemetery, the school would need to be redesigned, according to a release from the district. This could add about $18 million in costs to building the school, putting the overall project about $25 million over budget, district officials said.

“Our district has a responsibility to our students, taxpayers and the citizens who voted in support of this project to avoid the continuing delay and economic harm being caused to the taxpayers,” Burdine said in a statement.

In an attempt to minimize delays, FBISD officials filed a petition to the court of appeals following a Dec. 18 ruling from Shoemake keeping Master in Chancery Michael Elliott—a Richmond attorney—on the case.

Elliott was appointed master in chancery, or an assistant in the court who does not serve to advocate for either side, on Nov. 21 following a Nov. 19 hearing regarding the reburial.

On Nov. 30, FBISD had filed an objection to the appointment of a master in chancery for the case.

DNA testing

The district is working to gain permission from the Texas Historical Commission to perform DNA testing on the remains, FBISD Chief Communications Officer Veronica Sopher said. This could help identify the found bodies and help  identify living descendants.

Although the THC has told the district it does not have the authority to grant this permission, Sopher said FBISD wants the commission to reconsider.

“The [THC] statute is pretty clear,” she said. “They have the authority to grant permission. We certainly don’t want to violate any statute and take action that we’re not authorized to take. There’s a process that we’re going through to try to get permission, and if, for whatever reason, that doesn’t happen we’ll consider additional legal action to get that permission granted to us.”

According to Elliott, the THC is working to determine their place in providing permission in the case.

“The Texas [Historical] Commission is apparently unclear as to their authority as it relates to DNA testing,” Elliott said. “They have asked for an attorney general opinion to clarify what their authority is.”

The district has formed an advisory committee, which began meeting the first week of December, to discuss and determine recommendations regarding reburial, Sopher said.

“One of the things that we’ve discovered is that the DNA identification and family identification are priorities for this group,” Sopher said.

Destructive DNA analysis will have to be performed to identify the discovered bodies. The destructive analysis comes from extracting DNA from molars or other bone material.

“I do think that locating at least statutory relatives is required, and I don’t think it’s proper or correct to just assume that none of those people are still alive,” Elliott said. “I think that effort has to be made to try to locate those people that are statutorily legally relevant.”

While the advisory committee meets and the district awaits permission from the THC, the bodies remain exhumed at the construction site, Sopher said.

“The intent is to let the committee do their work, identify what the areas are that we need help with and then making sure that we’re using our community resources in the most effective way possible to make sure that we’re moving the project forward,” Sopher said.

See more top stories to follow in 2019.

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Beth Marshall
Born and raised in Montgomery County, Beth Marshall graduated from The University of Texas at San Antonio in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in communication and a minor in business. Originally hired as a reporter for The Woodlands edition in 2016, she became editor of the Sugar Land/Missouri City edition in October 2017.
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