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Alachua County School District makes changes to Camp Crystal Lake after last year's scrutiny

Many of the school board's recommended changes to the camp were aimed at increasing equitable access to the summer camp, which is owned by the school district but does not reflect its demographics. (Alachua County Public Schools)
Many of the school board's recommended changes to the camp were aimed at increasing equitable access to the summer camp, which is owned by the school district but does not reflect its demographics. (Alachua County Public Schools)

Camp Crystal Lake’s summer 2023 registration closed on Friday.

During the school year, Camp Crystal Lake hosts field trips for Alachua County’s second and fifth graders. In the summer months, it becomes a traditional sleepaway camp, charging tuition for weeklong and two-week long stays. It’s the only camp in Florida owned and funded by a public school district, according to Alachua County School Board members.

Following last year’s internal investigation into the camp’s management and use of taxpayer funds, the school board recommended a series of changes aimed partly at addressing equitable access to the summer camp.

Here’s what’s changed since, what’s remained the same, and what further changes the board will consider at a Wednesday workshop.

What’s changed

District staff have disentangled the finances of the summer camp from the school-year activities, and directed the summer camp’s revenues to cover its own expenses, including utilities.

They also reviewed expenditures to ensure the camp didn’t pay for personal services – like a Big Ten satellite football subscription.

Scholarships, which were previously given without an identified funding source or documented procedure, are now financed only by donations.

Last year, the camp offered 45 scholarships, but district staff estimate only eight scholarships will be available for this summer.

District staff developed a scholarship application and selection process modeled after that of the county’s extended day enrichment program. Recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as well as children in foster care are automatically qualified for a 90% scholarship. Family size and income are now considered, and families can indicate whether they need transportation.

These changes address one of the board’s most pressing concerns last year: allegations that the camp was not using any need-based metric to allocate scholarships, and it appeared “gifts” of camp tuition were given to friends of the director.

Scholarship applications are due by Jan. 31 but are not currently available on the camp’s website, which indicates the application and criteria are still undergoing revisions.

What’s stayed the same

The weighted lottery system still acts as a legacy system, prioritizing returning campers – even those from out of the county – over new campers. The camp has a lengthy waitlist.

This means the number of scholarship spots is limited not only by available funding but also by how many spots are left over for new campers.

Board member Sarah Rockwell asked the board to consider reversing the weighted lottery to prioritize new campers over returning campers, but other members did not voice immediate support.

The pay remains at $200 per week for full-time, overnight camp counselors. It’s a rate comparable to similar summer camps, but one that board member Tina Certain continues to challenge as unjustly low.

Scott Burton remains the camp’s director. He and his wife sued the school board, former superintendent Carlee Simon and former school board candidate Prescott Cowles for defamation after last year’s controversy. A judge has not yet scheduled a trial date in the case.

A school district spokesperson provided information on the camp to WUFT but did not respond to a request to interview Burton.

What else might change

The board will meet for further discussion on Jan. 11.

A draft of the presentation for that meeting and a new camp handbook is already posted on the school board’s website.

It proposes a $100 or $200 increase in counselor pay and a $24 or $47 increase in weekly tuition per camper. These increases could potentially double the summer camp’s profits.

Board members intend to discuss whether they should allow out-of-county campers at all, given the shortage of spots for children of county taxpayers.

District staff are exploring funding alternatives for the scholarships, including private partners and renting the camp out for events.

The board is also considering ways to increase the camp’s capacity – which is currently just under 1,000 campers per summer. Some ideas being considered are building additional cabins, creating a day camper option, and getting rid of the two-week option and adding more one-week spots.

The presentation doesn’t address a request from board member Diyonne McGraw that district staff look into ways to better market the camp, which Certain has described as operating primarily on “word of mouth buzz.”

The Wednesday meeting is open to the public and scheduled for 1 p.m. at the district office at 620 E. University Ave.

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