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Carlee Simon: Your help is needed TODAY to prevent an unwise purchase of land with half-cent sales tax money

In a disappointing 3-to-2 split vote, the Alachua County School Board approved a purchase of 37 acres of undeveloped land off NW 143rd Street for an inflated $3,680,000 purchase price. The May 5 School Board meeting heard phoned-in comments and emails from citizens that all expressed concern with this purchase. Two board members (Tina Certain and Leanetta McNealy) shared apprehension with the purchase as well, referencing bad timing in light of the COVID-19 situation and a high purchase price. The remaining board members (Rob Hyatt, Gunnar Paulson, and Eileen Roy) dismissed the concerns of their colleagues on the board and the feedback of all citizen comments for that meeting.   

In 2018, the School Planning  Advisory Committee (SPAC) identified this property as an ideal location for a future school. On November 6, 2018, the School Facilities ½-cent sales tax was approved by voters. On December 14, 2018, Peter Trematarra (Drake Land Holdings Inc.) purchased this SPAC-identified land for $1.85 million. We are questioning the rationale of purchasing a parcel of property that allows for a 98.9% appreciation in only 15 months time. Furthermore, we believe this is not the time for the school district to purchase additional property for future new schools (the intended time frame to utilize this land is 5-10 years down the road). We are uncertain about the short- and long-term impacts on the tax base, changes in student population, and the new demands that will be placed on public education because of the uncertainty associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the economic conditions of the county.  

We do not feel this is the time for the school district to speculate on land. We believe that when asked today, the majority of voters would not consider spending $3,680,000 for a future school site to be a fiscally responsible decision. Because of the marketing of the school facilities sales tax initiative, many voters were under the impression the tax initiative was going to primarily improve our already existing schools, not fund speculative land acquisitions for schools years away from breaking ground.

A group of citizens have been researching this purchase, and we have organized some points for consideration:  

  1. The appraisals used for the $3,680,000 purchase  were performed October 23, 2019 (Link to appraisal 1) and December 3, 2019 (Link to appraisal 2). 
    1. The most recent appraisal was performed 6 months ago.
    2. Owner of Record is Drake Land Holdings Inc. 
    3. In December 2018, the property was purchased for $1,850,000 (ORB 4650/2042). 
    4. Both appraisals indicate:
      1. Property was not listed for sale at the time of appraisal.
      2. Second appraisal indicated DR Horton had a letter of intent to purchase lots for $30,000 but let the option expire. 
      3. Appraisal uses the DR Horton expired option contract to value this land purchase.
      4. Both property appraisers based the property appraisals on “Highest and Best Use” being a residential development, not a publicly funded school.
  2. The purchase agreement was signed by the Superintendent on March 31, 2020 (link to purchase agreement).
    1. Signed one week after the County issued Stay-at-Home Emergency Order (March 24, 2020).
    2. Board members did not know the negotiated price at that time.
    3. Public announcement was posted April 4, 2020.
      1. FIRST time Board members were informed of the price of $3,680,000 was in April 27, 2020 email.
    4. The Alachua County School Board passed the 3-to-2 vote May 5, 2020.
    5. The inspection period ends May 15, 2020.
  3. There is no evidence that this purchase was brought to the attention of the members sitting on the School Capital Outlay Surtax Oversight Committee (link to responsibilities of the committee). All oversight committee documentation can be found on this link (December 2, 2019 unapproved minutes, there are no posted minutes for March 2, 2020). Financial reports do not indicate this $3,680,000 purchase option either. 
    1. As citizens, we depend on members of these tax oversight committees to represent the best interests of taxpayers and provide guidance and oversight of the school district’s use of these monies. I argue the lack of evidence indicating the committee’s involvement appears to violate the ballot language from the half-cent School Capital Outlay Surtax referendum.
    2. How is it that the superintendent can make a $3,680,000 purchase prior to approval from the School Board and without the oversight of the School Capital Outlay Surtax Oversight Committee?
    3. How can the district reconcile purchasing a property that appreciated 98.9% in 15 months?

We need your help.  In order to stop this purchase, a special meeting must be requested by 3 of the 5 school board members before 10 a.m. on Monday, May 11.  We need you to write an email to the School Board, boardmembers@gm.sbac.edu, and ask them to rescind this decision.  We also would like you to sign our Open Letter.  

We do not necessarily feel this property is not a good location. We are concerned about the expense and process of the purchase. We are concerned that citizens may lose trust in the School Board and future initiatives based on this purchase and based on the resistance of the board majority to consider public input or attempt to find consensus among the board members for large expenditures such as this.  

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Carlee Simon
Gainesville, FL

The opinions expressed by letter or opinion writers are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of AlachuaChronicle.com.

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