Putnam County schools move forward with sweeping plan to close, build new schools

The Putnam County school board voted to move forward with a plan to shut down several schools and build new ones.

PUTNAM COUNTY, Fla. – Putnam County school leaders voted Tuesday to move forward with a revitalization plan that could reshape the district as students and families know it. The plan involves closing several schools and building new ones over the course of 10 years.

The motion passed 3-2.

During public comment, community members spoke out about the possible closure of schools, including Jenkins Middle School. Some said the process was rushed. Others said building new schools will not help students in the district while others wanted to make sure the legacy of Robert H. Jenkins Jr., a Black man who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic actions in the Vietnam War for whom the school is named after, continues to be honored.

School board member Sandra Gilyard, who voted against the plan, said the school district should slow down and get more input from the community. She also said the district must not lose its history.

Board member Jane Crawford voted to move forward with the plan.

“We have band-aided these schools until we don’t have enough band-aids to put on them anymore,” Crawford said. “We have too many schools for too few students and now is the time to consolidate these schools.”

News4Jax has learned one school that was originally on the chopping block, Melrose Elementary School, is no longer closing.

If you watch Kia Spitzner’s nearly 2-minute long video compilation, you might agree it resembles a memory book. In it, former students and parents alike share how Melrose Elementary School helped shape their lives. For Spitzner, putting it together was the least she could do.

“My parents sent all their home videos of us at schools, a lot of friends send me videos, and a bunch of strangers sent me videos just saying what it meant to them,” Spitzner said. “It was really, really neat to see how it all came together.”

Spitzner’s video was just a small part of a community-wide effort to save MES. Their efforts appear to have paid off.

Picture shows thank you notes for saving Melrose Elementary. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Not only is keeping Melrose open a relief for Spitzner and her former classmates, but the little ones also wrote thank you notes for the district’s decision to spare it from closing. Spitzner says this is much bigger than a small-town school. This is about a whole community.

“The economic factor of it, all the businesses support it and depend on it,” Spitzner said. “The parades, and festivals, it’s just such a huge part of the town.”

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Putnam school leaders voted on the new, updated plan. Putnam County schools superintendent, Richard Surrency, said it essentially calls for a K-6 configuration. He went to tell News4Jax in an email:

“The new K-6 configuration would allow Melrose Elementary to have enough students to fill the capacity of the school. There would be no need to close the school, for now, however, when we have the funds to build a new school on that site, there will be a need to put some of the students in portables while construction is taking place.”

But other schools will close throughout three phases. In the first phase, Jenkins and Miller Middle Schools, E.H. Miller School, and the C.L. Overturf, Jr. 6th grade center will close. Through a referendum, Phase 2 asks for three 7-12 schools to be built in the first five years. Then in the third phase, also through a referendum, six more schools would be built. Most are K-6. The three phases will be broken up over 10 years.

The plan also calls for all four high schools in the district to eventually become 7-12 schools.

It was not immediately clear how much the plan will cost. (To see the plan in full, click here.)

Surrency said if the district doesn’t reduce some of its expenses, like the cost of maintaining old school buildings, it would result in losing some teachers.

Surrency said Tuesday the schools that are set to close will not sit empty but will be used to serve the community in some way.

With the finalized plan being left to Putnam County leaders, the Melrose community is just celebrating a victory.

“It’s just a huge relief knowing that future generations are going to continue having those memories and the different little things that continue to build the school,” Spitzner said.

About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.