St. Johns County School Board chairman sees train wreck ahead

Discouraging and frustrating are not the two words you want to hear from the chairman of the St. Johns County School Board on the first day of school. But that's how Tommy Allen describes the daunting task of managing growth within the county now that the Florida legislature cut hundreds of million of dollars from the budget of public schools.

It's especially a problem for St. Johns County, which is the top-rated school school district in Florida and the state's fastest-growing district.

"Four hundred million has been taken away from us and been put in a different pot, for teacher salaries specifically, that (will) be redistributed by the Legislature," Allen said. "So what are you going to do to offset that?  You do what I'm doing right now: sweat."

Allen spoke about the dilemma while touring a new kindergarten-through-8th-grade school opening this year in Nocatee.

While this mammoth new building school and the expansion of nearby Nease High School may suggest the county has the money it needs to keep up with explosive growth, the school board chairman is blunt about the district's future.

"The problem is that train wreck is going to happen sooner or later," Allen said. "We might be able to dodge it for another year or so, but if it continues, we don't have the money to build the next school that we are going to need, and we need to build one a year."

This is in spite of a half-cent sales tax the voters approved in 2015.

Allen said  the district still has to build an elementary school in the south end of the county and has to pay to expand South Woods Elementary and Liberty Pines Academy.

Allen said he does not like the idea of building massive K-8 schools, where at least 1,400 student will attend, but the district has no choice. With the expansion of Nease, 2,200 students will now attend.

"Now what that means is in order for us to get the money from the state, we've got to have about 3,300 over-enrolled  -- over capacity -- before we can go through the process of the state to get money to rebuild. So where are we going to put them? Well, we've been putting them in portables. I don't know what else we can do, and that's the sad thing. It's very discouraging," Allen said.

With 3.6 percent growth in student population this year, the St. Johns County school district is already playing catch up. It committed last year to a 2 percent pay raise for teachers -- the state gave the district less than half that -- so it's had to dip into its reserve to make up the difference.

The district expects nearly 16,000 students to move to St. Johns County in the next 10 years. While the dedicated sales tax revenue will help, Allen said if the legislature keeps cutting what it gives to schools, St. Johns County won't be able to keep up with growth.

About the Author: