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Equity concerns blocked a proposal to spend up to $1.76 million on expanding Buchholz High’s athletic facilities

Buchholz just completed phase one of the athletic fields construction, costing over half a million dollars, which included rubberizing the track. Phase two would have included expanding the bleacher capacity to allow the school to host meets. (Nevada Cullen/WUFT News)
Buchholz just completed phase one of the athletic fields construction, costing over half a million dollars, which included rubberizing the track. Phase two would have included expanding the bleacher capacity to allow the school to host meets. (Nevada Cullen/WUFT News)

The motion to take the next step toward phase two of athletic field improvements at Buchholz High died for lack of a second at this week’s Alachua County School Board meeting, after the idea provoked discussion about equity and transparency.

Though school board member Gunnar Paulson, the motion’s proponent, argued the renovations could end up saving the district money, the pressing needs of other schools, especially Hawthorne Middle/High, caused other board members to say it was not the right time for the project. Some also questioned whether the state's competitive bid process was being undermined.

Paulson initially motioned to hire Charles Perry Partners, Inc., who did the first phase of construction, to conduct phase two. Mildred Russell seconded this.

A Charles Perry Partners employee – whose daughter runs track for Buchholz and whose wife is president of the school’s track and field booster club – presented the project and cost estimates to the board.

The construction would expand the bleacher capacity from 1,163 to 2,738 occupants. Paulson argued this expansion would save the district money by enabling Buchholz to host games and charge admission rather than busing to other locations to compete or holding Thursday night football games.

The initial vote for this project in November 2020, when Eileen Roy was on the board, passed. But after Diyonne McGraw replaced Roy months later, the board rescinded that vote and decided to only proceed with the first phase of improvements at a cost of roughly half a million dollars, which included rubberizing the track. Buchholz High agreed to repay a little under a third of that back over the next 12 years. The forecast budget for that phase is now over $1.13 million.

Paulson, who used to coach sports including track and field at Buchholz, wanted to expand the project again.

Multiple board members said they would not be comfortable with using Half-Cent for Schools tax money toward the project since the ballot language and the way it was advertised to the public made it seem like it would be used for classroom and educational space improvements, not sports.

Using the other source of facility project funds, the 1.5 Mill tax, would require a spot survey and that the new facilities would be for shared use by at least two middle schools and two high schools.

The April 16 projected cost estimate given by the architecture and design firm working with Charles Perry Partners was just over $891,000. It was revised to nearly $1.1 million on May 3, the day of the meeting, after a few additional line items, including the design fee, were added.

But as the district’s director of community planning pointed out at the meeting, this estimate did not include restroom facilities to accommodate the expanded capacity, which could be required to meet building code standards. New restroom facilities would bring the cost of this second phase of construction up to nearly $1.76 million, according to a second revised estimate.

Certain voiced concerns that the motion, and the pitch by the construction firm representative, undermined the Florida requirement for a competitive proposal selection process for design and building work. The Alachua County School District was cited for not following this process in a recent audit.

Paulson revised his motion to call for a spot survey instead, but this time it did not receive a second and was not put to a vote.

Several board members brought up Hawthorne Middle/High School during the discussion.

“Hawthorne High school cannot even have a track team,” Russell said, “because they do not have a usable track.

“I could not in good conscience upgrade a track for someone and not do something for the team, the school who can’t have a team at all because of the condition of their track.”

At Hawthorne Middle/High, which serves students in the rural areas mostly east of Gainesville, 68% of the students are on free and reduced lunch, compared to 27% at Buchholz.

In recent years, there have been sewage and roof leaks at Hawthorne's school. The buildings and pipes are more than half a century old. While the city has been replacing its pipes, according to Hawthorne’s mayor Jacquelyn Randall, the school hasn’t. Randall worries about the safety and quality of the school’s water.

The district has already replaced the school's kitchen’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and the roof of the gymnasium, but state bureaucracy complicates further significant repairs.

Some school administrators have argued that what the school really needs is totally new buildings, but tearing down the existing structures requires state approval.

In December, at the direction of former superintendent Carlee Simon, the district initiated the process to get that approval. District spokesperson Jackie Johnson said that report should be finished by the end of this month, but after the school board approves the report it may take another four to nine months for the state to review it and make a decision.

This puts a pause on significant repairs to Hawthorne Middle/High buildings, like replacing the main roof, since part of the state’s review will include deciding whether the district has put too much money into the current buildings in recent years to tear them down.

To avoid losing the option of rebuilding the school, Johnson said the district has done more temporary, lower-cost fixes, including replacing leaking air conditioning units and recoating the roof.

Johnson also said the sewage leaks were caused by students doing things they shouldn’t – flushing a wig and coke cans down the toilet, shoving pencils in drain holes – and replacing old pipes won’t help with that.

The discrepancy between facilities at schools like Buchholz and schools like Hawthorne raised equity concerns both from school board members and from public commenters, including Gainesville resident Armando Grundy-Gomes.

“Some people are seeing the fruits of their labor with their taxes more than others,” Grundy-Gomes said at the meeting. “That’s a fact.”

Upgrading Citizens Field, which currently hosts the football games of Buchholz, Gainesville High and Eastside High, is one alternative to expanding the capacity of Buchholz's bleachers, which board member Leanetta McNealy argued might more equally serve the district’s schools. The city commission has recently renewed conversations about that possibility.

Board member Tina Certain requested a joint workshop with the city commission on this alternative, and a school board workshop to bring back phone calls as a method of public comment, which a half dozen members of the public advocated for at the meeting. The date for those workshops has not yet been set.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.