Okaloosa's aging school buildings could use a funding infusion
NICEVILLE — Staff members at Edge Elementary School are not fond of hearing their facility referred to as old.
"We prefer historic," said Principal Samantha Dawson. "Or vintage."
Historic? No question. The school was opened in 1925 as Niceville High and burned down a year later. It was rebuilt and destroyed by a wind event in 1936. Reopened in 1938, it became Niceville Elementary in 1953 and was renamed in 1962 to honor Okaloosa County's first female elected official.
There's no denying, though, that Lula J. Edge Elementary is showing her age, and it's going to take more than botox to fix her.
"Everything cosmetic that can be done has been done for this building, because we love it," Dawson said. "But if you look close enough to see, you can tell she's over 80."
The building that houses Edge Elementary is 82 and in need of a full on makeover, or, to put it in Okaloosa County School District parlance, "renovation — entire campus."
But the cost of doing all that needs to be done at Edge is steep. The district puts the price tag at $6.6 million and thinks the most practical way to get that kind of money is through passage of a half-cent sales tax.
The tax initiative, put forth by the Okaloosa County School Board, appears on early voting ballots being cast now and on election day Nov. 3.
The sales tax proposal is backed by the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, which is heading up a "School Cents Makes Sense" campaign. It is opposed by a group called "Yes for Okaloosa Schools," which says the school district is not spending tax dollars wisely.
"I hear people say that we're not doing enough, that we're not maintaining our property," Dawson said. "But if you've got a $100 repair and you get $20 for the fix, there's only so much you can do."
With funds from the sales tax, the school district plans to go into Edge and repair wooden floors that creak, fix walls damaged over the years by water and termites, renovate the school cafeteria, repair windows that leak when it rains, replace carpeting and remove portable classrooms.
Along with the renovations, plans call for a new roof over the "classroom wing" at Edge Elementary.
The new roof is crucial, because the one covering Edge now leaks so badly when it rains that everything in the front office has to be covered in plastic to protect computer systems and the single, ancient, electrical outlet powering the whole room.
"We have to cover all the work stations because we don't know where the leak will come from," Dawson said. "The rain finds its way."
School secretary Kelly Edelman has learned to deploy an overturned umbrella to catch water falling from the ceiling.
Water pools in the existing roof and gets into the school at other locations as well, Dawson said, and Edge workers are regularly changing out ceiling tiles. At one location pointed out by the principal, there was no ceiling covering.
"We don't even replace the tile, because it leaks there every time it rains," Dawson said."
Water damage from leaking roofs appears to be the most pervasive of the many ills Okaloosa's aging schools face.
On the same day Dawson was conducting a tour of Edge Elementary, a kindergarten teacher at Longwood Elementary found water puddled inside the plastic encasing an electric light unit, and it wasn't even raining. She was forced to move her class to a different room.
"As old as Edge is, we do not have the worst problems in the school system," Dawson said.
Assistant School Superintendent Steve Horton can attest to that. Even as Dawson was pointing out all of the issues at Edge, he was trying to coordinate by phone the emergency repairs for a pipe that had burst inside a wall across town at Kenwood Elementary.
"You saw a snapshot of what our maintenance staff has to work with," he would tell a reporter later. "It’s not always as dramatic as a flooding classroom due to a broke pipe, but it impacts student education nonetheless."
With sales tax dollars, the school district plans to entirely replace the roofs at 12 schools and partially replace roofs at five others. Edge is one of those scheduled for partial replacement. Longwood is among those targeted for a complete roof replacement.
School air conditioning units across the county are another source of concern. Horton said school officials have been trying for 10 years to "do a complete redo" of the HVAC system at Fort Walton Beach High School, but budget constraints have forced them to complete work in phases.
The Fort Walton Beach High air conditioning project will be completed if the sales tax is passed. Crestview High School, Bruner Middle School, Shoal River Middle School and Mary Esther Elementary are all slated to get new systems paid for by sales tax dollars. Niceville High School is on the list to have work done as well.
The sales tax referendum asks county voters to approve a 10-year, half-cent sales tax that would be collected beginning Jan. 1. It is estimated the tax would generate $256 million over its lifespan. That's approximately half of the $500 million Superintendent Marcus Chambers' administration estimates it must have to meet all its infrastructure needs.
Plans call for putting at least $1 million into each of the county's 42 schools. The district will spend most on its four high schools, with more than $17 million being put into work at Crestview and Fort Walton Beach, almost $12 million going to Niceville and $11 dedicated to Choctawhatchee.
Though each of the four high schools will get new student multipurpose facilities, and new construction, renovation or expansions are planned at 13 of the county's schools, no extravagances are built in to the sales tax spending plan, Horton said. None of the money will be spent on athletic or school administration facilities.
The School District proposes to spend $10.5 million at Longwood Elementary to enclose "open concept" classrooms that were a popular innovation when the school was constructed in 1971 but have become a security risk in today's world. Open concept classrooms also will be enclosed at Fort Walton Beach High School, Horton said.
Sales tax dollars will be used to meet security and technology needs at every one of the county's schools.
While plans call for construction of new schools in Niceville and Crestview, the immediate focus, should the sales tax become reality, will be on the 75 percent of Okaloosa schools that are older than 45 years old.
At Laurel Hill School, the district wants to spend $5.3 million to renovate an old cafeteria building into a multi-purpose building and replace classrooms inside the old cafeteria building.
At 62-year-old Bob Sikes Elementary, $5.7 million would be used to construct a new cafeteria and auditorium and renovate and relocate the school's health clinic. Ruckel Middle School, which is 64 years old, will get a new cafeteria/auditorium, along with a new roof and renovated classrooms.
Baker School, which became the county's first accredited school in 1923, needs $8.4 million to expand its cafeteria, renovate restrooms, replace windows and place a canopy over a physical education area.
One of the talking points that School Cents Make Sense leaders have used to sell support for the school sales tax is that Okaloosa County's School District is one of just three school systems in Florida that has held an A rating for the past six years.
Dawson said educators at Edge Elementary take pride in overcoming adversity to help students excel in the classroom.
"You could put the teachers here in a tent city and they would do an outstanding job," she said.
What can be discouraging, though, is the reaction of parents when they see the dilapidated condition of schools within a district they've heard great things about.
"We have military families that are excited to get stationed here because they know we're a top performing district. And you can see the family faces go from excitement, to disappointment, to disbelief," she said. "They're thinking 'this is really where they educate our kids?' "