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Half-Cent Sales Tax Brings Improvements And New Elementary School To Gainesville

The half-cent sales tax passed in November 2018 will allow for improvements coming to county schools soon. (Landon McFee/WUFT News)
The half-cent sales tax passed in November 2018 will allow for improvements coming to county schools soon. (Landon McFee/WUFT News)

Southwest Gainesville will get a new elementary school with money from the half-cent sales tax Alachua County voters approved in November.

Construction of the new school will use $4 million of the estimated $22 million a year the school board will receive from the tax, said Jackie Johnson, Alachua County School Board spokeswoman.

The new elementary school, designed similarly to the county’s newest elementary, Meadowbrook Elementary School, 11525 NW 39th Ave., is expected to open in the fall of 2021, Johnson said. 

The tax, which will continue for the next 12 years, provides the school board the necessary funds to also improve existing schools across the county. The school board spent the last year touring every school in the county to assess what needs to be updated.

“Sadly (our schools) are in need of some work,” said Johnson. “The average age of schools (in Alachua County) is 40 years.”

Although infrastructure is important to consider, security has become a priority to the school board, Johnson said. With an increase in school shootings, all Florida countries were instructed by the Florida legislature to install improvements like fencing, security cameras and any other changes to make it more difficult for intruders to enter classrooms. 

Most schools in Alachua County were designed before they needed to consider school safety, according to the “Revitalizing Our Schools Information" flyer on the School Board of Alachua County website. The district has made several improvements already, including new gates and locks, but many schools need additional upgrades.

Kae Pearson is skeptical of the school board’s “lofty” goal to tighten security on school campuses. She has three children in public schools in Alachua County and both the middle school and high school they attend have different protocols for security.

To visit her two youngest children at Kanapaha Middle School, she can walk into the school just by checking in at the front office.

When she goes to Buchholz High School, where her oldest son is a senior, she must give the security guard her driver’s license and let the guard take her license plate number before she can enter the gated parking lot.

“They’re turning these schools into prisons,” Pearson said. “This issue (of school shootings) is bigger than installing security cameras.”

Student safety should always be considered, said Angela Gonzalez, who taught fourth grade at Talbot Elementary for 18 years and now teaches at P.K. Yonge. Now, however, overcrowding is the biggest issue Alachua County schools face, she said.

The county will get a new school to reduce overcrowding that has affected area elementary schools for the past five years, Johnson said. The school board has not yet chosen the specific location.

The proposed plan for the school was approved by the state of Florida years ago, Johnson said. But until the sales tax passed, the school board did not have the resources to begin construction or hire architects to draw up plans for school improvements.

Building a new elementary will help alleviate overcrowding in schools, Gonzalez said. Managing large class sizes has become a big issue in schools in recent years.

While adding one or two more students to a class a year might not sound hard, Gonzalez said, it makes it just a little more difficult to address every student’s individual and academic needs.

Most of the other projects happening around public schools in Alachua County were outlined in the "Half-Cent for Schools" ballot language. Schools in Alachua County have air conditioning units that are no longer effective, outdated technology in classrooms and rooms too small to accommodate larger classes, Johnson said.

Gainesville High School will be the first to receive all new air conditioning units this summer, she said.

 These projects will take time. Johnson acknowledges that excitement is low because people are impatient to see results.

But as long as the half-cent tax is in place in Alachua County, the school board will strive to bring life back into old schools, making it the best learning environment for current and future students.

Anastasia Sims is a reporter for WUFT News. Follow her on Twitter at @anastasiacsims. You can reach her at 352-281-1141 or 352-292-NEWS.