Along with rapid growth comes need to secure county’s schools

District to spend $11.7 million on keeping students safe

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CLAY COUNTY – The school district is preparing for extreme growth amidst healthy school ratings for existing campuses.

The school board approved its final budget last week and that budget includes nearly $12 million going directly to school safety. There’s $5.57 million going to school police and guardians and another $6.1 million going to school hardening. Chief of Police Kenneth Wagner spoke to the importance of school safety during the same meeting the school board discussed the possibility of seven new schools by 2040, all of which will need to have their own resource officers and specialized safety measures.

“What I want to stress, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, is that security is not convenient,” Wagner said. “We as a community need to safeguard what is happening, what we saw on TV [13-year-old arrested for threatening to shoot up Lake Asbury Elementary] can happen and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to thwart.”

Wagner said boy’s threat was proof the district’s dedication to safety is working as it should, all cylinders firing together. He said the district performed well in its latest school safety assessment and that the letter saying the district is in compliance is ready to go to the Florida Department of Education.

He said school hardening will come in the form of additional fencing and fence repairs as well as new LED lighting to brighten up all areas of a campus. These kinds of measures are important, especially as the board learned during their Sept. 3 meeting that its future likely holds seven new schools in it.

School district Director of Safety and Security James Fossa said the county is growing rapidly.

“We’re expected to see about 12,000 new homes in Clay County,” Fossa said.

That many homes equate to 2,500 elementary students, 772 junior high students and 1,599 high school students – which will require three new elementary schools, a new junior and senior high school.

Tynes Elementary will be at 111% capacity in the 2021-22 school year and Fossa said it’s imperative that a new school get built in the Two Creeks area as soon as possible as doing so would alleviate not only Tynes’ capacity problem, but Discovery Oak Elementary’s as well.

This school is tentatively known as School A and it’s predicted to open in 2023-24 if things go according to Fossa’s plan. It calls for 862 students and it would be built on land the district already owns down the road from Tynes. School R is a school predicted for 2022-23 that would be built on County Road 315C, across from Shed Road where two large silos currently sit.

The Governor’s Park area would be up next, and Fossa has three schools planned for the area from 2025 to 2030. This translates to two elementary schools that cover grades K-8 and one high school in this area which is just a little south of Green Cove Springs. From 2030 to 2040, Fossa said a junior high school in the Saratoga Springs area for 1,117 students and an elementary school in the same area for 862 is planned.

The total estimated cost for all seven schools is $245,171,982 and right now, the district doesn’t have that kind of funding.

“People still think impact fees are going to pay for our schools and we don’t even come close so something has to give,” board chair Carol Studdard said.

Board member Ashley Gilhousen said the district hasn’t raised impact fees in a while. Impact fees are charged to developers looking to build new developments in Clay County and Gilhousen pointed out that despite continued development and growth, impact fees have remained the same.

Fossa said the district is due for an impact fee study and the board can determine how it wants to proceed with these fees following the study. One thing is certain though: the school board needs funding to account for the growth that’s coming. How that funding is brought in will be up to proceedings of the five members voted to hold chairs on the Clay County School Board.

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