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Parents tell School Board to “slow down” at swing school workshop

The Alachua County School Board listens to Jackie Johnson’s presentation on December 17

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Alachua County School Board held a workshop on December 17 to discuss various “swing school” options; School Board Member Gunnar Paulson later called it the “most informative meeting” he had ever attended.

School Board Communications Director Jackie Johnson opened the meeting with a presentation that brought everyone up to speed on the issues. In 2018, voters passed a half-cent sales tax for school facilities. Between these funds and the 1.5-mill capital outlay funding, nearly $500 million will be available for school facilities over the next 12-15 years. The focus of these efforts will be on revitalizing existing schools. 

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An advisory board has ranked all of the work that needs to be done, and projects (including those in the planning phase) are underway at 19 schools. The first four large-scale projects will be Metcalfe Elementary School, Idylwild Elementary School, Howard Bishop Middle School, and the new Elementary School I.

The State Department of Education has approved the district’s applications to demolish buildings at Metcalfe, Idylwild, and Bishop, and designs are under development for all three. Transition plans have been developed for Metcalfe (on-site) and for Idylwild, which will use existing buildings at Prairie View, which has been empty since at least 2008 (it will be brought up to code first). After Idylwild’s construction is complete, the Prairie View site will be used as a swing school by Williams Elementary and Lake Forest Elementary. 

Johnson explained that swing schools keep students and staff out of construction zones and limit the risk of utilities interruptions. Construction also moves faster and is less expensive if they can just demolish the whole site and build everything at once.

In addition to the Prairie View swing school, the School Board plans to set up a modular school at a site to be determined. Modular schools cost about $3 million to set up and about $1 million/year to lease. They take about 6 months to set up. Because of the set-up time and expense, they need to be used multiple times to be cost-effective.

As the School Board began exploring how to manage these huge construction projects, they reviewed what other districts had done. They considered splitting the students over multiple sites, phasing the project at Bishop, using Lincoln Middle School, and using a transition school that could serve Bishop, Westwood Middle School, and Littlewood Elementary in different years. An upcoming Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) project on the grounds of Bishop was also a complicating factor. 

The option they announced on October 31, prompting the December 17 workshop after an outcry from parents and neighbors, was to place the swing school on the campus of Westwood Middle School. 

This option would require almost all Bishop students to take buses to Westwood (18-20 buses). Start/dismissal times would likely be staggered to address traffic congestion, but that would require additional law enforcement support and additional school staff. However, it would provide a convenient option for Westwood and Littlewood students in succeeding years. 

A meeting with the Gainesville City Manager and staff on November 26 yielded new information and ideas, including information about an upcoming renovation/drainage project at Westside Park, a delay in the WSPP project at Bishop, the offer of Citizens’ Park as a potential swing school site, and an offer to lease the RTS bus compound (so the School Board’s transportation facility could be used as the swing school site). 

The delay of the WSPP project opens the possibility of using part of the Bishop campus as the swing school site. 

However, this would require busing students from other schools to Bishop in succeeding years. Also, it is unclear whether there is room at Bishop for the larger number of Westwood students (Westwood has 400 more students than Bishop), there would be no access to a full kitchen during the year that Bishop is under construction, and the WSPP project would have to be delayed until the swing school is no longer needed. 

The Citizens’ Park option would look like this:

The potential problems with that site include whether it is big enough, whether sufficient utilities are available, significantly higher costs, increased transportation requirements to bus students to that site, and traffic, parking, and safety issues. 

Other suggested sites have included A. Quinn Jones, which is too small; the district office (the former Kirby Smith Elementary), which is 120 years old and would be expensive to bring up to code, as well as not having enough space on its grounds; the School Board Transportation Compound, which is in an active industrial area and would require demolishing the current buildings there, as well as leasing the RTS bus facility; the fairgrounds, which wouldn’t work because Florida State law says schools can’t be in a flight path; and the Job Corps building, which is also in an active industrial area and too close to the airport. 

Next steps include continued discussions with the City of Gainesville about possible sites and a traffic study, which is projected to be completed by the end of March. The goal, according to Johnson, is to avoid or minimize any potential delay in beginning construction while providing the best possible situation for students. 

After the presentation, School Board members had a chance to ask questions. Tina Certain said she had received emails with concerns from parents about getting their kids to or from school if the start times were staggered. Parents were also concerned about the impact on after-school activities. Johnson said she didn’t have the answers to those questions yet and that the district couldn’t wait for answers to every question before getting started.

Leanetta McNealy wanted assurance that the many emails she had received (“So many letters with many recommendations”) would be considered. Johnson said the district would compile questions and go through them. McNealy also wanted to know what other districts have done that is different from our district’s plans. Assistant Superintendent for Facilities Paul White said there really wasn’t anything.

McNealy asked about phasing the construction at Bishop so that a swing school wouldn’t be needed. Johnson said Bishop isn’t a good site for phasing because 18 buildings are coming down and their infrastructure is connected. Phasing would cost an extra $4.3 million and stretch it out to 3-4 years. 

McNealy recommended finding a piece of property to buy so that after all the construction is done, the School Board will still have access to that space, possibly with the modulars still on it. Johnson said the School Planning Advisory Committee recently spent a year looking for property and found very few sites that were suitable. They only found four sites, all of which were on the edge of the urban reserve. McNealy said, “We need to go back to the drawing board.” 

White said everybody they talked to said that setting up a swing school saves time and money. 

Certain asked about splitting schools over two or more sites, but Johnson said that idea was considered and “quickly discarded.”

White said people keep throwing out ideas as if they hadn’t been previously thought of, but the team has already looked into all of them. He said the attitude of the public seems to be, “We support the sales tax, we just don’t want it here. We don’t want it in our back yard.” He said you can’t do half a billion dollars of renovation with inconvenience, dirt, dust, and noise. He pointed out that this will be transformational, that the school system will be changed for generations to come, and that out of all the school districts he’d talked to, he hadn’t found one in which everyone was happy during the process. He warned of “paralysis by analysis.”

McNealy said she wants the district to find an alternative site to the ones that were already listed. She’s not in favor of spending money on a temporary site that won’t be owned by the district. 

School Superintendent Karen Clarke said that her direction to staff was to be conservative in the budgeting process so they don’t run out of money before the last school is done. She said she’d rather have money left over at the end for additional projects, and delays increase costs by 6%-12% per year.

School Board member Eileen Roy confirmed that the current plan is to lease the modular buildings, not buy them. She also pointed out that having to transport Westwood students to another site would be expensive, since that’s the largest school of the three. 

During public comment, Stacy Oyenarte, a teacher at Westwood, complained that meetings were held at Howard Bishop to communicate the plans, but no meetings were held for the Westwood community, which found out about all of this on October 31. She said she likes the idea of a permanent site somewhere.

Carol Webber, who has a son at Howard Bishop and lives near Citizens’ Park, “vehemently” objected to using Citizens’ Park. She said that would be a loss of valuable green space that is used “almost on a daily basis.” She recommended slowing down and also thought that the district office should be considered more seriously.

Shawn Webber, Carol’s husband, said their neighborhood needs a good public school option for elementary. He also thought that the City Commission will oppose using Citizens’ Park: “It’s going to be a fight with the City Commission.” He said Citizens’ Park is the heart of the neighborhood. 

Thomas Stewart, who lives in the Duck Pond neighborhood, said he couldn’t see any reason to bus children to an area of town that already has tremendous traffic. He said the district should find a piece of land and “spend an extra million or whatever it takes.” 

Carly Simon, one of the authors of the Open Letter to the School Board, said she had concerns regarding the process. She said that she had asked about the school staging issue at a facilities meeting in April, and the answer was that they wouldn’t need swing schools. Then the letter went out to Westwood families on October 31. She wondered when the School Board members knew (Certain and School Board Member Rob Hyatt later confirmed that they learned about this on October 31). She said it’s paramount that this money is spent appropriately and questioned whether due diligence occurred because the traffic study won’t be finished until March. She said it’s challenging to continue to support public education under these circumstances.

Lindsay Hoffman, President of the Westwood PTO, said she was strongly in favor of renovating the buildings. She said the PTO has no official position on the swing school issue because there’s not enough information. She said the PTO expects to be included in the future and that any delay of timelines would be a result of poor planning, not parents asking basic questions. 

Susan Bottcher said she lives near Westwood, and her concern is traffic. However, she said the traffic would only be bad for one school year and only during rush hour in the mornings and evenings. She said she was willing to sacrifice for better school facilities. “When we asked to tax ourselves, do what the state refused to do, we asked for this, and this is a huge, huge undertaking.” She said it would be a temporary inconvenience for generations of benefit but that the School Board should make sure there is open communication. 

Jeffrey King, whose daughter goes to Howard Bishop, said this is a very complicated urban planning problem, but professionals do this. The School Board could do a feasibility study and charrette and be transparent. Doing this could spin it back to a positive place.

Michelle Hazen, a realtor who lives in the Duck Pond, said almost nobody in the Duck Pond sends their kids to their zoned district schools. She said the neighborhood needs a community school, possibly on the site of the former Kirby Smith. She said the process feels rushed.

John Barrow, a former city commissioner, supports taking more time to make a decision. He said the district was too quick to dismiss Kirby Smith because when renovations are done, it can be a school again. 

City Commissioner David Arreola said he was representing District 3, not the commission. He said the school district should take each concern into account and avoid externalities on the quality of life. He said it would be a long process and that meeting with city management was a good step. 

Renee Strauss, who lives in the Duck Pond, said her kids go to private school and that her family would love the option to go to a quality public school in the Duck Pond area. She said the renovation of Kirby Smith could be “powerful and positive.”

The discussion then moved back to the School Board. Superintendent Clarke said the district would do additional research and a feasibility study. The traffic study has to be after the holidays to be valid, so they will probably bring back a plan in early April.

Certain said she wants citizens to feel listened to and wants to make sure they’re doing things right. 

Roy said there was a lot of eagerness to get started after so many years of “patching.” She said she hoped the community would understand why they “jumped the gun a little bit,” but there was “no malign intent.” She said, “It was all done with an eye to getting started on something we desperately need.”

More information about the upcoming facilities projects can be found here