The deterioration of once-great schools

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Posted March 5, 2024 | By Caroline Brauchler /
Video by Bruce Ackerman /

The aviation program at Sparr Elementary is meant to be the school’s pride and joy, an innovative program that will bring the school magnet status next year. Due to the aging school’s lack of space, however, the program is housed in a cramped room that doubles as a storage unit.

In an effort to show just how much financial help many schools across the district need, Marion County Public Schools staff invited guests to tour nine schools last week, one of which was Sparr Elementary, a hub of learning for grades pre-K through fifth nestled in the rural northern area of the county.

Without concrete funding methods, and with higher priorities such as building two new elementary schools in the crowded southwest portion of the county, a plan to help Sparr Elementary cannot be made for certain now, said Barbara Dobbins, executive director of Operations and Emergency Management.

The school district has pursued bringing back two funding sources that could go toward capital projects, such as building new schools and constructing new wings to existing schools: reinstating school impact fees and increasing the local-option sales tax.

Impact fees are one-time payments made by developers for each home they build in order to offset the cost of new schools. The fees are assessed based on how many students each type of home will generate. The county commission approved an ordinance on Tuesday to reinstate impact fees, which had been suspended since 2011 due to the recession.

The school board has also moved to place a request to increase the 7% sales tax by a half-cent on the general election ballot this fall to generate funds for new schools.

Sparr Elementary was built in 1964 and as the community evolved and grew, the school grew with it. But after multiple additions, “There’s only so much land available” to utilize without completely changing the footprint of the school, said Assistant Principal Sarah Schrader.

Since its opening, Sparr’s enrollment has increased by 40% and now totals 440 students. Most of the classrooms, rooms and even closets are used for multiple purposes to efficiently use all available space.

“We would love to see some space that reflects the pride we have for our school. We’d love to be able to give our students all of the things that we want for them,” Schrader said. “Our school is growing; our magnet program is just beginning. We know Sparr is only going to become a better place to be, and we’d like to have facilities to help us accomplish that.”

Take one room, for example. It houses all of the supplies for the Future Aviator Academy, the school store and an administrator’s office. In this particular building of the school, the air-conditioning system was installed in 1992, so the 32-year-old system is well past its expiration date. It often stops working, leaving students cooled by just fans.

The Future Aviator Academy program is an addition to the school, which allows for third through fifth grade students to learn about concepts of aerospace engineering and aviation through hands-on instruction.

Aging buildings not only negatively impact the mechanical aspects of a school—such as its plumbing, air conditioning and lighting—but the deteriorating conditions also negatively impact teacher retention, student attendance and performance, according to the school district.

Several classrooms at Sparr don’t have direct access to restrooms. In one area of the school, three restrooms are shared by five classrooms, one of which only can be accessed by going through a classroom, which often causes interruptions for that class during the school day.

“These fifth grade students have to leave their classroom, go knock on a fourth grade classroom and interrupt their classroom to go in to use the bathroom,” Schrader said. “Then it becomes the responsibility of those teachers to help monitor that bathroom usage.”

Running through the floors, walls and ceilings is galvanized cast iron plumbing that is original to the school and is now in dire need of repair.

When it comes to how often maintenance is conducted at Sparr, Technical Services Supervisor Shaun Duncan said it’s needed “constantly.”

Across the entire district, the facilities average at about 24,000 work orders per year. Maintenance and repairs are partially funded by the capital outlay from the 1.5 property tax millage rate, but those funds only cover about 20% of maintenance and facilities needs. The other 80% of unfunded maintenance needs simply does not get done.

Maintenance was formerly funded in part by Public Education Capital Outlay dollars, which used to be a state funding source that came from taxes generated by landline phones, according to MCPS spokesperson Kevin Christian.

With aging facilities such as Sparr and the nearby Anthony Elementary, the school district explained that building a new school to combine the two elementaries would end up being less expensive than trying to fix the existing issues and expand the schools to have enough space for their growing student populations.

For many of the schools across the county, portable classrooms have been the solution for a lack of space. But portables often come with problems of their own.

“We have approximately 832 portables across our district that we own. Of that, about 246 of them are used for instructional purposes. At any given moment in an instructional day, that impacts about 4,000 to 6,000 students,” Dobbins said.

Many of the portables have no water or sewer capabilities, leaving students to trek to nearby buildings to use restrooms during the school day. Given the frequent inclement weather of Florida, this journey could leave students walking through the rain as most schools severely lack covered walkways.

“If we’re in severe weather and we have to evacuate the portables, then you’re looking at every student having to go into another building, and most likely sitting in hallways or other classrooms and losing the instructional time and that significantly impacts their performance,” Dobbins said.

Sparr, like many other district schools, lacks covered walkways in many exposed areas of the school.

“I can tell you that every one of our 50 schools is short covered walkways. It’s just another example that we prioritize, with the little funding we get, those life-threatening type of needs such as HVAC and plumbing and things like that,” Dobbins said.

Sparr is not the only school with problems; schools across the district are dealing with their aging facilities and the consequences of growth. Many schools in the southwest portion of the district, such as West Port High School, have reached or exceeded the total capacity of students that the schools can hold.

With the future of Marion County promising expansive growth, and with the current rate of 200 new residents moving to the county per week, school district officials are asking for support from area legislators and the community alike.

“Seeing what our student needs are is the priority for everything that we do,’’ said Superintendent Diane Gullett. “We can’t expect to provide a productive learning environment when students are working in closets and they have to impact two or three classrooms just to use the restroom facilities. Our students deserve better than that, and I do think our community will support what’s best for our students.”

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