During a recent Republican Club town hall in Niceville, Okaloosa Superintendent of Schools Marcus Chambers addressed the district’s plans to build new schools in Okaloosa County, in addition to renovating existing facilities.
He was asked the following question from a member in the audience:
- Do aging school buildings need to be replaced and what would be the cost? Also is it true that the school district does not have any plans to make better facilities?
There are approximately 38 schools within the Okaloosa County School District, with 75% of them being 45-years of age or older.
“If I’m doing my math correctly, that’s about 29 schools,” said Chambers. “When you start talking about knocking down 29 schools at an average of $50 million per school, that’s almost $1.5 billion to just knock down older schools. That’s not even feasible but we do have a plan.”
Chambers noted that he was using a modest cost for school construction.
- Elementary: $40-60 million
- Middle school: $60-80 million
- High school: $100-120 million
Before the passing of the half-cent sales tax, Chambers told the crowd that the district would have to patch the buildings. Now, that’s no longer the case.
“We’re now replacing roof systems all across this district, at multiple schools for the first time in forever,” he said.
- Additionally, the district has begun flooring paving projects at numerous schools, interior renovations, drainage & sewer repairs, and kitchen renovations.
“All of those things weren’t able to happen 3, 4 or even 10 years ago,” he said. “Now we’re able to fix things the right way. So when you start talking about tearing down all these old schools, it would be an absolute impossibility.”
New schools in Okaloosa County
Switching gears, Chambers also took time to set the record straight on allegations that the school district has zero plans to construct new schools.
“We know right now that we need, at a minimum, one school in the Crestview area and two schools in the future,” he said. “We’re in talks right now to acquire approximately 80 acres of land in the Crestview area.”
Chambers says that despite the amount of time the land acquisition process has taken, they already have plans on what to do with the land.
The first step is to get a K-8 school in Crestview to alleviate pressure in other elementary and middle schools in the north end of the county. Chambers explains that the traditional recommendation for building new schools is when a current school is at 80% capacity.
- According to Chambers, almost every school in Okaloosa County is between 90-100% capacity.
Prior to the half-cent sales tax being passed, the district didn’t have the necessary funding to look at building new schools because they were busy trying to “patch” the older ones, he said.
Over time, the K-8 school will eventually become a middle school, and then, on the same 80 acres, the school district will build an elementary school.
$130 million for major construction
In December 2021, the Okaloosa County School Board approved the issuance of Certificates of Participation not to exceed $130 million.
A Certificate of Participation is a process that school districts across the state of Florida, and across the nation, utilize in order to get funding to get projects going.
- By using a COP, school districts get money up front and then pay it back with available resources, such as the half-cent sales tax.
This financing tool allows a school district to utilize a lease structure and borrow money for capital projects. A school district will utilize the Certificate of Participation when there is a specific revenue stream that can be tied to the capital project. In this case, the half-cent sales tax and other school sources.
“We purposefully set our payments for the first three years at a certain amount, knowing in the fourth year, that amount would come down lower,” said Chambers. “So that way, we have the ability to do another COP within our capital dollars to pay for these new schools.”
Speaking more on the central part of the county, the district has 25 acres of land in Niceville and is looking at purchasing more. Building a new K-8 school in that area would reduce the capacity in schools such as Plew, Ruckel, Bluewater, and Edge Elementary. This would also allow the school district to get students out of the portable classrooms and into permanent ones.
For Destin, the OCSD is looking at adding a 4th & 5th grade center on land which they already own. Currently, 5th grade is at Destin Middle School.
“Do we have a plan for new school construction? We absolutely do,” said Chambers. “To say that we don’t, that’s just something that absolutely is not true.”