Breaking ground

Construction begins on two new elementary schools in SW Marion

Members of the Marion County Public School Board and other officials throw shovels of dirt during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new elementary school that will be built at Winding Oaks Farm off Southwest 49th Avenue Road in southwest Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, March 21, 2024. The new school, which is not yet named, is expected to be completed in 2025. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2024.

Home » Education
Posted March 25, 2024 | By Caroline Brauchler

Sporting hard hats and wielding shovels, school district officials on Thursday broke ground on the sites of two new elementary schools in southwest Marion County that are expected to ease overcrowded conditions at schools in this fast-growing part of the county.

The site of Elementary School “X” at 7200 SW 49th Avenue Road is one of two new elementary schools being built in this area, with expected opening times of August 2025. The other groundbreaking for Elementary School “W” took place the same day at 14320 SW 70th Avenue Road in Marion Oaks.

“The facility represents students and their lives, and with elementary school for the students that will come to this school, for most of them it’ll be the first time they experience education in a formal setting. This starts off their journey of success for the future, their college pathway, their careers and their future,” said Superintendent Diane Gullett.

The schools are identical and will house up to 860 students and have 43 classrooms. Both schools will have one two-story building made of concrete block construction and have minimal entry points for enhanced security. The facilities will each be 115,000 square feet.

These new schools are the first to be built in Marion County since the 2018 passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which required heightened security, increased surveillance and more fortified schools.

The two new elementary schools and a new high school, which is expected to open in August 2026, are being built in Marion County with designs that keep increased safety in mind, down to the layout of having a single building for each elementary school, said Executive Director of Operations and Emergency Management Barbara Dobbins.

“We have to be responsible for the safety of our kids. Regardless of mandates, we want the safest school possible,” Dobbins said. “We could no longer cookie-cut any of our previous prototypes. We really had to start from scratch and select a prototype that covered that safety feature and that really covers the technology feature.”

Both schools are expected to cost $43 million each.

“We are in the process of drawing that loan to cover both of these two new elementary schools, and the new high school that we’re set to open in August of 2026,” Dobbins said. “Just like you would with a mortgage, you require a debt service to that. That debt service then becomes the responsibility of the capital outlay budget.”

With the recent reinstatement of educational impact fees, revenue raised by the one-time fee on new homes will fund a portion of that debt service, with the remaining portion coming out of the district’s capital outlay fund designated to pay for the new schools, Dobbins said.

The site of school “X” was formerly the Winding Oaks farm, over 1,000 acres that were used as a thoroughbred breeding and training facility from 2002 until 2014. In 2014, the late Canadian businessman and philanthropist Eugene Melnyk began selling the farm for different purposes. The school district bought the land for the school in 2020.

Neighboring the school site is a new major development in the works after the Ocala City Council approved the creation of a development district of 460 acres of the former farm. Developer Kimley-Horn plans to build nearly 1,700 single-family homes on the land.

As of June, the Ocala/Marion County area is the fourth fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country and the ninth fastest-growing county in the country. With 269 people moving to the area each week, the age demographics of the people moving here are trending younger, which is expected to increase the student population in Marion County greatly, said Ocala Metro Chamber & Economic Partnership President and CEO Kevin Sheilley.

“A decade ago, we talked about retirees moving here and we still love our retirees, and we still see them,” Sheilley said. “But today, the person who is moving to Ocala is more likely to be a 30-year-old, and we see that with increased school enrollment and the need for more schools.”

Even with the growth in areas like Winding Oaks that used to be used for agricultural purposes, School Board Chair Nancy Thrower said she hopes the beauty of the natural land can be preserved and that students at this school in the future can experience hands-on learning about the equine industry that makes up Marion County’s history.

Thrower mused about the potential for an equine studies program to be incorporated into the elementary school, something that could give the school magnet status.

“This is some of the best farmland in Marion County. I’m excited to have an elementary school here in such a great location, we know it’s needed,” she said. “But this is also an opportunity to utilize the land in a way that would continue to honor why people come to Ocala—for its beauty.”

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