We need to reassess our growth priorities

The Gazette sounds an alarm that Marion County residents need to raise their voices on an important issue.

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Posted December 14, 2022 | By Ocala Gazette Editorial Board

Examples of four schools anticipating significant impact as a result of development:

(stats are in the photo captions for each school)

  • Saddlewood Elementary School
Current seat capacity: 910 seats	
Current Enrollment: 915 students Anticipated new students based on 18 approved development projects: 1,343 [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
  • Saddlewood Elementary School
Current seat capacity: 910 seats	
Current Enrollment: 915 students Anticipated new students based on 18 approved development projects: 1,343 [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
  • Current seat capacity: 2,452 seats	
Current Enrollment: 2,923 students Anticipated new students based on 42 approved development projects: 1,897 
West Port High School is shown in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. [Ocala Gazette/Photo Courtesy Thomas Fletcher]
  • Current seat capacity: 2,452 seats	
Current Enrollment: 2,923 students Anticipated new students based on 42 approved development projects: 1,897 
West Port High School is shown in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. [Ocala Gazette/Photo Courtesy Thomas Fletcher]
  • Current seat capacity: 1,203 	
Current Enrollment: 1,339 students Anticipated new students based on 34 approved development projects: 1,254 
Liberty Middle School is shown in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. [Ocala Gazette/Photo Courtesy Thomas Fletcher]
  • Current seat capacity: 824	
Current Enrollment: 867 students Anticipated new students based on 18 approved development projects: 1,329 
Liberty Middle School is shown in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. [Ocala Gazette/Photo Courtesy Thomas Fletcher]
Hammett Bowen Jr. Elementary School is shown in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. [Ocala Gazette/Photo Courtesy Thomas Fletcher]
  • Current seat capacity: 824	
Current Enrollment: 867 students Anticipated new students based on 18 approved development projects: 1,329 
Liberty Middle School is shown in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. [Ocala Gazette/Photo Courtesy Thomas Fletcher]
Hammett Bowen Jr. Elementary School is shown in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. [Ocala Gazette/Photo Courtesy Thomas Fletcher]

First, the good news. The elected representatives of the most powerful government entities in Marion County met last week to discuss one of the most important growth issues facing the county today- school infrastructure.

Now, the bad news. Several of these public servants, and their powerful business allies, set about steamrolling a presumed partner in serving the public’s best interest, all while smiling and promising closer cooperation.

Let’s set the stage. For only the second time in 12 years, Marion County commissioners and members of the Marion County School Board and the Ocala City Council met for three hours on Wednesday to review an updated interlocal agreement on how they will share information about developments, resources and needs, among other items.

Leaders from all of the municipalities in Marion County were invited. There also were about 50 other attendees, including business leaders, developers, concerned citizens and the Gazette.

After pledging to work better together, they got down to business. And, naturally for Marion County, business was the first out of the chute.

Kevin Sheilley, CEO of the Ocala Metro Chamber for Economic Partnership, spoke about the group’s efforts to drive growth in manufacturing, logistics, health and office space. He also addressed questions he receives from businesses that are considering moving here. County Commissioner Michelle Stone helped set the tone by asking Sheilley, “In your interactions with those [businesses] looking into Marion County, is there anything you need these bodies to address specifically?”

Sheilley pointed to concerns of lack of housing for the workforce these companies would attract.

He also mirrored in his response something County Commissioner Craig Curry mentioned earlier: Ocala’s urban growth boundary (UGB) was fair game for urban development since so many other acres had been set aside for preservation through the county’s Farmland Preservation Area and the U.S. Forest Service.

This was notable because county commissioners continue to approve urban development outside these local boundaries.

The workshop was specifically called to address the school district’s pinch with rapid growth and lack of funding to meet the demand for facilities. After Sheilley’s presentation, county staff detailed the developments that have recently been approved, and the numbers are staggering. Countywide, at least 34,000 residential units (single-family and multi-family) can apply for a building permits.

These thousands of new homes mean more people, many of whom will be parents who expect their children will attend a nearby local school, some of which are reaching capacity. The school district doesn’t have enough money to adequately maintain existing facilities let alone build any new schools.

School district representatives gave a detailed presentation that clearly articulated their critical funding situation to the officials in the room who decide the level of growth in the county. You can read their stats here: (MCPS powerpoint).

Why, you might ask, doesn’t the school district have enough money to keep pace with growth? State guidelines have changed over the last decade, and there are few funding opportunities. The district is likely to ask the county to bring back impact fees next year, but even if these one-time assessments on new building return, it will take years before enough money is raised to build a single new school.

Keep in mind, Florida statutes already restrict the number of students the district can place in a classroom.

School district leaders did not hear any commissioner echo Stone’s request to Sheilley – What do you need from us? The response instead seemed to be a collective yawn and the tacit implication that this problem is the school district’s alone to fix with the state.

Stone said all possibilities should be explored, even one far-fetched idea: Could we ship our kids to schools in other counties if they were in proximity to them?

Curry said the district should not think about erecting a new administrative building, which was an interesting response considering no such construction is in the district’s plans. District administrators now are working out of a school since the administration building has been deemed unsafe for reasons all due to lack of maintenance- a glaring example of the funding inferno the district is facing.

Ocala City Council member Barry Mansfield, a general contractor, told the Gazette after the meeting that he thought the district’s maintenance numbers were high. He added he wanted to be sure the school district’s actions in no way impacted the city’s ability to make development decisions.

Ironically, the business leaders and government officials who are focused on enhancing the local economy missed the obvious: The largest employer in Marion County is the school district. And some of the most important growth and development work involves our schools.

The proposed interlocal agreement does not mention the Florida statute that gives communities facing this crisis the choice of establishing a school concurrency policy. Without this policy implemented in local comprehensive plans, there is no way the school district can compel developers pay their fair share of the increased costs their projects create.

Additionally, commissioners and council members have their hands tied if they even want to consider school capacity when making development decisions due to the lack of a policy.

This past year, city council was in that position when a proposal came before them to build hundreds of apartments across the street from Saddlewood Elementary, which is at capacity and cannot add more portables. The council’s attorney told them they cannot factor school capacity in their decision because it is not included in the city’s land use policy.

At one point, Sheilley said Marion County could use more office and industrial space built to lure businesses.

It made us feel uncomfortable to hear, “Let’s do more” when we haven’t addressed sufficiently how to deal with what we already have. Or, in the case of school capacity, what we don’t have.

County and Ocala officials pushed to get this latest iteration of the interlocal agreement finalized and accepted by Feb. 15. The agreement in its current form, though, leaves the school district powerless to push back against the consequences of the county and city’s development decisions.

District officials said they were waiting on data from an independent study on what they’d need for planning, but that could take months. The county and city told them, just sign the agreement and we can amend it later, if need be.

We must point out that the parties’ lax compliance with the current agreement significantly contributed to this mess in the first place.

The original 2008 interlocal agreement outlined school capacity percentages for schools, but the county and city pulled out of that part of the agreement in 2011 after the state left it to local officials to decide whether school concurrency should be considered. The district put up no fight because there wasn’t much growth happening then.

A lot has changed locally. According to the stats Sheilley shared, 192 people a week are moving to Marion County. The school district noted there is a higher percentage of families than retirees in the mix.

Marion County residents have repeatedly shown they care about quality education by supporting extra taxes to finance school programs. It’s time once again to let your voices be heard.

The city and county’s economic development decisions have come with a cost, and the community demands policies be put in place that return school capacity to the list of factors considered during each development decision.

We ask our readers to reach out to your elected public servants asking that a school concurrency policy be put in place and that you want them to make development decisions and work with the school district like it’s one of the most important business interests in town. Because it is.

Here are their emails:

Marion County

County administrator- Mounir Bouyounes – Mounir.Bouyounes@marionfl.org

County commissioners

Kathy Bryant- kathy.bryant@marionfl.org

Carl Zalak – Carl.Zalak@marioncountyfl.org

Michelle Stone – Michelle.Stone@marioncountyfl.org

Craig Curry – craig.curry@marioncountyfl.org

Jeff Gold  – Jeff.Gold@marioncountyfl.org

 

City of Ocala

City manager, Peter Lee- PLee@Ocalafl.org

City council

Kristen M. Dreyer- kdreyer@ocalafl.org

James Hilty – JHilty@ocalafl.org

Barry Mansfield- bmansfield@cityfl.org

Jay Musleh – jmusleh@ocalafl.org

Ire Bethea – ibethea@ocalafl.org