Paul White: We must plan for the future

One of the things we heard from many citizens during the run up to the vote on the Half Cent for Schools initiative was that the district needed to plan for the long-term so that we wouldn’t find ourselves in the same facilities crisis in the future.

Because of state cuts to funding, it was tough to keep our old, rundown, and overcrowded schools running in the here and now, let alone plan years ahead. That’s why we asked voters to approve the half-cent. With that additional money, we will be able to revitalize our existing schools, promote equity throughout the district, and plan for the future.

Nearly $72 million of the first $110 million in major renovation projects is going to rebuild schools that serve students in east Gainesville. Within the next month or two, we’ll begin demolishing a majority of buildings at Howard Bishop Middle and Idylwild Elementary to make way for new campuses. We’ll also start construction on a new facility that will replace almost all of Metcalfe Elementary.

Smaller projects have been completed at several other existing schools throughout the county, and many more are in the planning stages. Construction on a new elementary school in west Gainesville to relieve overcrowding in that area is about to begin.

As we said before the vote, the vast majority of our $492 million in facilities funding over the next 10 to 15 years will be spent on existing schools. But the ballot language and the project list shared with the public also specifically included “land acquisition.”

The property that the district recently purchased was by far the top choice of the SPAC (School Planning Advisory Committee), a group of local government representatives and other citizens who spent a year looking at potential school sites throughout the county. What they found was that there just aren’t a lot of good choices. Almost all the properties they looked at were too small, too wet, too inaccessible, too expensive to build on, or had some other deficiency.

But by the time the SPAC committee completed its research, someone else had already snapped up the property. Fortunately we got another shot at it. We discussed the purchase with the School Board during a public workshop on February 4, during which Board members expressed their interest in moving forward. We continued to update the Board on the appraisals, negotiations, and approvals process until the board vote on May 5.

Under School Board policy, the Superintendent is “responsible for site acquisition negotiations,” with final approval resting with the Board. That makes sense, because having a panel of elected officials negotiating directly with a seller during public meetings is a sure way to drive up the price.

We aren’t the only ones interested in this property. The owner has received three other offers ranging from $3.5 million to $4 million, and two of those buyers still have offers on the table in case we back out.

With this property “in the bank,” future school boards will have an ideal site for a new school that we know will be needed down the road.

Because of COVID-19, we don’t know what the next year or two will look like, but we were very conservative in our estimates for future facilities revenues to give ourselves a cushion. That approach is one of the reasons that prominent bond rating agencies Moody’s and S&P recently awarded the district high ratings, citing our “strong management, with good policies and practices.”

Ultimately, we must be ready for what comes in the years after this crisis, which will certainly include more Alachua County Public School students who need a place to learn.

Paul White
Assistant Superintendent for Operations Alachua County Public Schools

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