The Jefferson County School District is about half the size it was a decade ago. Fewer students means less money. The district was able to build a new, combined middle-high school about five years ago with state funding, but the district now faces controversy over whether the district should build a new elementary school to replace the one that’s falling apart.
Jefferson County Elementary school’s exterior brick walls are covered with a visible greenish-yellow fuzz. Jefferson County School District Superintendent Al Cooksey doesn’t like what he sees at the district’s only elementary school.
He walks the halls, pointing out broken pipes and exposed wires.
Jefferson Elementary was built more than 40 years ago. Exposed pipes and wires can be seen in the outdoor walkway ceilings, and mismatched air conditioners complete the patchwork effect. Elementary school principal Elijah Key says the building was constructed back when the open “pod” concept was popular, meaning everything is in a circle, and sound bounces everywhere off makeshift walls.
“If there’s one teacher teaching, the kids in the other classroom can hear what’s going on and there’s no way to shut that off at this point in time," he says.
Last year, Jefferson Elementary School’s sixth-grade wing burned down. Cooksey is frustrated.
“I get so mad," he says. "You can’t change everything you want in a day, cause I would have done so, because I don’t have a budget. I would have brought in some more helpers, workers…But we did everything we could. The building burned down? It had asbestos in it.”
The sixth graders now attend the middle-high school. The district painted the school, and added some new doors, but it’s hard to mask obvious problems. Jefferson doesn’t have enough money to build a new school on its own. It can’t generate enough revenue from property taxes and qualifies for state assistance to construct a new school. The money has to be approved by the Florida legislature and is handed down from the state department of education. Key hopes the district gets the funding.
“Buildings don’t educate. But it can help in the process. It can definitely make the learning environment more conducive to learning, and right now, the building and the structural problems play a role in the learning process. We definitely need a change.”
But not all local residents see the need for a new school. And Monticello city councilman John Jones is one of them.
"For all the students we have in Jefferson County you can put them all out there," Jones says. "I know DOE is giving money away, but let it go somewhere else. And that one [the middle-high school] is secure.”
The city was supposed to build a new elementary school five years ago. Instead, a new middle-high school popped up in its place. Jones says he’s against building a new school, when other facilities sit empty and abandoned. He’s got his eyes on an abandoned school building on the city’s Southside as a possible location.
“Right now, they just come up and rip the freezer—they ripped that out. Have a board up where they used to have a sink? It’s just thrown out there. It just looks…real disastrous," he says of the empty school building.
Recently the Florida Department of Education recommended $14.7 million for the construction of a new school. The proposal calls for a middle-high school, not an elementary school. Cooksey says if the plan is approved by legislature in the upcoming session, Jefferson school officials would move 7-12th graders into the new facility. The elementary school would move into the facilities now occupied by the current middle-high school, which was built for elementary kids in the first place.
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This story is part of a reporting partnership between WFSU and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Graduate Initiative.