Meadowbrook Elementary School opened in 2012 to help alleviate overcrowding in other elementary schools, but just five years later, it too is out of room.
“It did help,” said Jackie Johnson, Alachua County Public Schools spokeswoman, when asked if building Meadowbrook helped with overpopulation. “It helped enormously, but now the student population continues to grow, and now we have to add to the capacity.”
Overcapacity in schools is a district-wide problem throughout Alachua County, which has seen a rise of about 1,700 new students in the last three years. The primary schools are the ones feeling the brunt of the problem.
“Most of our students are elementary students,” Johnson said. “That is going to be the largest population as opposed to middle and high school students.”
A school is considered over its capacity when there are more students attending the school than originally intended when it was constructed, Johnson said. The figure is based on how many students can fit into classrooms and core facilities such as media centers and cafeterias, not including portables.
A lack of space
Sixteen of Alachua County’s 20 elementary schools are at or above 95 percent capacity, according to Johnson. Twelve of those 16 schools are over 100 percent capacity. There are over 300 portables in use across the county, majority of which are at elementary schools.
“We’ve got some schools where about half the student population is actually in a portable,” Johnson said. “Idylwild Elementary is a good example of that. (J.J.) Finley is another good example. They’ve got between 18 and 20 portables each, so it is a significant problem, but it certainly is most significant at the elementary level.”
The problem isn’t limited to just the classrooms.
“Another issue that we have to look at is the core facility capacity at our schools and whether or not it’s big enough to handle the number of students there are at that school,” Johnson said.
Cafeterias at Idylwild, Wiles and Terwilliger elementary schools cannot accommodate the student populations. Lunch is served as early as 9:30 a.m. to get all the students through the lunchroom.
Hidden Oak Elementary is dealing with similar overcrowding issues, but now it is at its capacity.
“This year, right now we are at 99.4 percent,” said James Kuhn, Hidden Oak Elementary principal. “Last year at the end of the year we were at 102 percent, and the previous two years we were at 99 percent.”
Over the years, the school added portables to deal with the increase in students. This past summer, an eleventh portable was added on the campus — six on one side and five on the other. The portables hold different types of classes including ESE (exceptional student education), gifted, and reading classes.
“They’re added as the need arises,” Kuhn said.
Hidden Oak also has to start student lunches as early as 9:45 a.m. in order to accommodate everyone, Kuhn said.
Growth and development
While schools throughout the county are struggling to find space for students, Eileen Roy, Alachua County School Board Member for District 2, said the problem is much greater in west Alachua County due to rapid development.
“Since the year 2000, there have been approximately 75 new residential developments approved in unincorporated Alachua County — five of those in eastern Alachua County,” according to Benjamin Chumley, senior planner at the Alachua County Department of Growth Management. “These approved development plans included about 12,000 total residential units — about 500 of those in eastern Alachua County. Many of these developments have included multiple phases, which have been built over the course of many years. Not all of the approved development plans ultimately get built, but most of them do.”
There are a lot of different theories to why more development happens in west Alachua County versus east Alachua County, said Steve Lachnicht, director of the Alachua County Department of Growth Management.
“The east side of the county tends to have more wetlands,” Lachnicht said. “The west side is more high and dry, so historically it was easier to develop on the west side.”
There are also socioeconomic issues.
“I mean the west side has more of the upscale type of developments like Haile Plantation,” Lachnicht said. “The east side was developed as more of a lower price point kind of homes, … the market is more demanding on the west side.”
Virtually nothing is under development in the east at the moment except a few individual home permits and other small projects, unlike the west where multiple new residential areas are under construction, he said.
A master plan
The school district is developing a county-wide comprehensive plan that will include a list of proposed projects such as replacing portables, upgrading classrooms, adding capacity and renovating facilities.
Alachua County Public Schools is hoping to fund the plan using a half-cent sales tax that, if approved by the voters during the 2018 general election, would last 12 years and so would the plan.
The plan will include needs assessments by the district’s facilities department and input from school communities in the county, Johnson wrote in an email.
“We are holding meetings at every school to share each school’s needs and to talk to parents, staff and other people about what they consider the school’s facility’s needs,” Johnson wrote. “The Alachua County Council of PTAs is also conducting on online survey through February. We will then be working with an outside consultant to develop a comprehensive plan , which is required whenever a district goes out for a sales tax for facilities.”
The county is also planning to build a new elementary school. Johnson said the state already approved the plans for the school, but the district has not yet settled on a location, although it will most likely be developed in the western part of county to provide relief to the most overcrowded schools.
The district must also find the money to build before construction can begin.
Lack of funding
Over the past decade, the state has cut millions of dollars of funding for Alachua County Public Schools.
“In the last 10 years, decisions made by the state of Florida have cost our district about $169 million in facilities funding alone,” Johnson said.
The state cut property taxes from a rate of 2.0 millage to 1.5 (one mill is $1 per $1,000 of a property’s taxable value) in 2008 during the Great Recession, where it has remained.
“We’ve lost millions of dollars,” Roy said.
In 2017 alone, the .5 mill that was cut by the state would have brought about $7 million to Alachua County Public Schools, Alex Rella, assistant superintendent for Business Services at Alachua County Public Schools, wrote in an email.
The state also cut the amount of funding public schools receive from the Required Local Effort , an ad valorem property tax levied by the county and paid to the Florida Education Finance Program.
The state legislature has changed its position on the topic in the past few years and decreased the RLE rate so there is no tax increase, as defined by the state, on property owners, Rella wrote.
“The result of this policy has been a significant reduction in local contribution that would help public education keep up with industries and provide an adequate funding for the education we all want,” Rella wrote.
The Required Local Effort and the millage the state cut from 2 mill to 1.5 mill since 2008 are separate millages and are used for different purposes. The Required Local Effort is used for general operations and the 1.5 mill is used for capital, but the state legislature does limit the amount of local tax rates the school district can use for both, Rella wrote.
Adding to the problem is House Bill 7069, which requires the district to turn over about $650,000 of its facilities funding for 2017 to the 13 local charter schools, Johnson said.
Governor Scott signed HB 7069 into law in June 2017.
The school district also lost money when the state cut the amount of Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) funds it receives during 2011 – 2012 school year.
“The PECO money used to be given 100 percent to public schools and then … they (the state) took it away from public schools and gave it all to charter schools for three years,” Roy said.
Before the state reallocated PECO funds to charter schools, Alachua County Public Schools received about $2.1 million in 2010, $754,000 in 2009, $2.6 million in 2008, and $6 million in 2007, according to school district budget summaries.
From 2011 to 2014, the school district did not receive any PECO funds from the state.
“After the three years of no PECO money for traditional public schools and all PECO money going to charters, the state began dividing it equally between public and charter schools,” Roy wrote in an email. “The problem for public schools is that there are many more public school students than charter school students in the state. Therefore, the charters got much more money per student than the public schools.”
When the state began reallocating PECO funds back to public schools for the 2014 – 2015 school year, Alachua County Public Schools received $515,817.
Due to the loss in state funding, the district has had to sideline its plans for a new elementary school and delay repairs to its most neglected schools.
To make up the difference, the school board is asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase next year during the November 2018 general election.
“Right now Alachua County has a sales tax that is 6.5 percent,” Roy said. “… So we’re asking people to approve an extra half penny in sales tax.”
The extra sales tax would help Alachua County Public Schools repair and renovate its facilities and build new schools.
“It brings us into equity with all the counties surrounding us which already have 7 percent,” Roy said.
About a third of the tax would come from visitors, such as those who come to the area for the Gator football games and stay in local hotels and eat at local restaurants, Roy said. The average homeowner would only have to pay about $58 extra a year.
“The facilities are sadly out of date and worn out, and I think people realize it,” Roy said. “More and more people are realizing it as their kids go through these schools, so we’re hoping that people will agree (to the tax) and that we need money, and we are not wasting it.”