BOCC and School Board mull new schools

A joint meeting of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners and the Nassau County School Board took place Monday, and though the room was empty, important items like how to plan and pay for new schools and the role of the district’s schools during an emergency were on the agenda.

A dialogue about the growth happening in every section of the county and how the governing bodies need to focus on planning took place between School Board members, county commissioners, the county and assistant county managers, and the county’s Department of Planning and Economic Opportunity.

By law, the School Board must provide an impact fee analysis every year. That document shows that approximately $10 million is available this year of which $7 million has been appropriated, including $4.6 million for a new school, the location of which has not yet been decided.

The total cost of the Wildlife Elementary School was $24 million and the capacity there is 800 students. Though there is no major housing development finished in that immediate vicinity, the school already has an enrollment of 635 students.

Superintendent Dr. Kathy Burns made a point of stating that in the state of Florida, “We build when it is too late,” referring to the “spot survey” process, among other things. Reached by phone, Kevin Burnette, director of facilities for the Nassau County School District, explained that under the current system, which is bound by state statute, every school district “works from projections based on data collected five years ago.”

Portable classrooms were also mentioned as an indicator of growth. Fernandina Beach High School, built in 1990, had 26 such classrooms in place before Yulee High School was approved for construction.

Other factors that go into school construction planning include the amount of land available. The footprint needed for an elementary school differs from what is needed for a middle or high school. The minimum acreage for an elementary school is 27 and for a middle school is 46 while a high school, with athletic fields and other spaces, requires 54 acres.

While Nassau County requires a 10 percent set-aside of land from developers, the types of homes built, the “spot survey” results, and other factors come into play.

In April 2017, the School Board voted unanimously to accept an amended memorandum of understanding that promises the district a 27.5-acre parcel in the midst of a new 1,600-acre mixed-use community, tentatively named Three Rivers, to be built less than two miles west of Interstate 95 along State Road 200/A1A. When Three Rivers Timber initially unveiled its plans for up to 3,200 new homes in 2005, the company proposed donating 20 acres to the district and paying approximately $9 million in a handful of lump-sum payments in lieu of being subject to the district’s impact fee. The district accepted the deal.

However, the company brought its plans to a halt amidst the real estate turmoil and recession in 2008. Earlier in 2017, representatives of Three Rivers reached out again to the School Board with some modified terms.

Three Rivers will now pay “the greater of either $3,727 per each residential unit (single family home or multifamily unit) or the current Educational Facilities impact fee; which fee will be paid prior to the issuance of a building permit.”

Emily Pierce, a Jacksonville attorney representing Three Rivers, assured School Board members at the time that under the new plan, the district will collect at least the $9 million previously promised, and likely as much as $12 million.

The space currently donated for the Three Rivers development area is only large enough to accommodate an elementary school.

Development on Three Rivers is slated to begin in the third or fourth quarter of this year with families taking residence in early 2020.

Taco Pope, director of the county’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, mentioned another development for 320 single family homes off of William Burgess, where ground is expected to be broken in the next 12 months.

An “X” factor is the relatively new mandate from the Florida Department of Education that “beginning with the 2017-18 school year, each district school board and charter school must adopt a controlled open enrollment plan that allows a parent from any school district in the state to enroll his or her child in and transport his or her child to any public school that has not reached capacity.”

A few residential areas under development in the county have age restrictions and are designed for individuals 55 and over. That fact engendered a few chuckles around the table.

Using schools as emergency shelters during hurricanes has long been a part of the emergency plan for Nassau County. However, January saw a few cold weather days that precipitated a need to open a school in Hilliard as a warming shelter.

Burns indicated that the School Board is pleased and eager to be of assistance, but other than providing a warm place for citizens to go, no meals were available as there were no food supplies. In addition, it was only because schools were closed for the holidays that the facility could be used as a shelter. It was agreed that additional planning to be better prepared for this sort of emergency is needed. The school system is still awaiting reimbursement of about $300,000 for operating shelters during Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

The old, vacant Yulee Middle School was discussed, and Burns stated that it could not be used as a school. She shared that the Yulee Historic Council has attempted to raise funds to maintain the structure but so far has come up short of its goal. The building needs extensive work to make it usable. Burns said that she will “continue to explore ideas and opportunities.”

Traffic safety in and around Nassau County schools – including Miner Road, U.S. 17, and William Burgess Road in Yulee and Mickler Street and U.S. 301 in Callahan – were also discussed. While there are a number of options, such as changing speed limits, installing traffic lights, constructing a roundabout, modifying approaches, and adding crossing signals with flashing lights, such steps would require a study and action by the Florida Department of Transportation after contact is made from the county or the school district.

The final item discussed was the potential of a local sales tax for the school district’s use. Burns was quick to underscore the topic was for discussion only.

According to Justin Stankiewicz, assistant county manager and Office of Management & Budget director, “The county (currently) levies an additional one-cent sales tax which is allowable by statute. This is completely unrelated to the additional tax the School Board can levy. Per statute, they can levy a max of 0.5-cent sales tax to be used strictly for their capital outlay. Each year the state releases estimates of what these taxes would generate, and according to the 2016 state estimates, if the School Board levied the full 0.5 cents, they would receive approximately $5,812,364 in revenues.”

To levy such a tax would require a majority vote on a public referendum.

News-Leader

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