The Flagler County school district has been talkin rezoning for over 10 years, without actually going through with it. This time, it will happen starting next fall. Over time, every school will be affected. The school board is voting on a rezoning plan in December. But that December plan may be scaled back from its original design–focusing first on the district’s two middle schools, with other schools rezoned in phased approaches over the next few years.
The district had originally presented a comprehensive rezoning plan to the community. That plan would have meant rezoning all nine schools in one fell swoop–five elementary, two middle and two high schools by the fall of 2022. The public response at two “listening sessions” held at the middle schools last month was brutal enough that the administration is reconsidering the approach and opting for the more phased-in plan, assuming the school board approves it.
“I live exactly 2.4 miles from Wadsworth, and my children are getting pushed out. I have four kids. I don’t want them to have to move. We’re going to Wadsworth for nearly 10 years,” one parent said, getting upset from time to time. “I’m sorry. It’s just upsetting. I have a son in second grade. And he has high anxiety for four days before school.” She said she can get to school in an emergency in minutes. That won’t be possible with rezoning. “I literally can get to the school in less than five minutes. The other school is seven miles away from my home on your site. It says that you’re supposed to be minimizing children’s travel time to school, but you’re tripling mine, my travel time to school.”
Others worried about how rezoning would affect busing: some students would be zoned out of getting to ride the bus–or, conversely, having to rise the bus for longer periods. One parent who lives in Ormond Beach but is zoned for Flagler said her child had to ride two hours a day, one way, and wondered how much further her child would have to be pushed out from rezoning. Others who did not necessarily have children worried about the way home values would be affected by rezoning–presumably referring to the way, say, a property rezoned for Buddy Taylor would lose value, if it had previously been zoned for Indian Trails. Those concerns were driven especially by a Realtor’s email that has been circulated among parents, according to some who spoke at the Buddy Taylor listening session. Still others questioned the district’s transportation claims, or that there were “risks by zoning for demographics.”
“If it is school choice, if that’s an option,” one woman said, “Somebody down, I don’t know, say, in the S’s wants to go all the way up to Belle Terre, I live 1 mile away and my kid can’t get a school choice spot, which means I still have to provide transportation for him. This doesn’t make sense, especially being here for 17 years and having transportation for all three of my boys. This doesn’t make sense.”
Criticism of the sort appears to have played into the administration’s decision to amen d its approach, though Paul Peacock, the assistant superintendent who’s headed the rezoning issue, has said all along that “This has by no means completely been decided. It hasn’t been decided at all. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we want the input.”
So the administration is submitting a scaled-back plan to the school board for discussion–but not action–at a workshop on Tuesday, says Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, a veteran of rezoning efforts in her previous post as assistant superintendent in St. Johns County schools, where growth over the past decade has required rezoning pf one type or another every year.
“The staff recommendations will present them with options and depending on the direction they would like to go, trying to do a phased-in approach allows next year to really anchor our sixth-grade transitional move with some necessary adjustments at the secondary level,” Mittelstadt said in an interview. “Which would then, as we’ve heard from many public comments, wow, it’s just been such a difficult past year and a half, 18 months, can we just kind of acclimate and settle and see where the housing industry goes with the permits, and with the actual number of students are coming into our building. So strategically, we’re still moving forward with getting our capacity correct, by applying a phased-in approach for our board.”
That’s the objective on Tuesday. “The end game will be a county-wide rezoning. But we don’t have to achieve that all within one school year,” Mittelstadt said. “Their original plan was to demonstrate to our board members and our community that rezoning countywide must take place. And so we wanted to launch the biggest picture on the table as possible for everyone to realize the magnitude of the impacts. And that first proposed plan achieved that. But the intent was to say: we have options, but this is the first way that we eventually need to get to the end road. So you know, it’s like that backwards-by-design planning. Here’s what we eventually need to get to. So there’s the big elephant, there’s the Big Apple, and now we can kind of walk it back in incremental steps.”
What is certain is middle school rezoning, because the school board has already voted for moving sixth graders from all five elementary schools to the middle schools. That was a separate policy option. Rezoning must follow. The move of the sixth graders will require rezoning Indian Trails and Buddy Taylor Middle School.
Buddy Taylor is at 112 percent capacity, Indian Trails at 84 percent. Flagler Palm Coast High School is at 110 percent capacity, while Matanzas is at 80 percent. “That’s now,” Patty Bott, the district’s planner, told the audience at a public presentation at Buddy Taylor on Aug. 25. Those capacity figures will only intensify in coming years.
The middle school rezoning is limited but for one change: currently, the zone east of I-95 and north of Graham Swamp, including the Woodlands in Palm Coast, along with the barrier island north of Beverly Beach, is zoned for Indian Trails, while everything west of I-95 and south of Palm Coast Parkway is zoned for Buddy Taylor. The district is proposing to rezone the Woodlands and the area on the barrier Island to Buddy Taylor, while rezoning a panhandle-like segment of the W Section, from U.S. 1 to Belle Terre Parkway and south to Royal Palms Parkway, to Indian Trails. That will create the odd situation of an entire W-Section neighborhood across the street from Buddy Taylor getting rezoned to Indian Trails. (The district has developed an elaborate set of web pages to inform the public about the rezoning. Those include a page where specific addresses may be entered to find out what that address is zoned for.)
The district outlined its main rationales for rezoning: minimize travel time, balance demographics, maximize each campus’ use, and more efficiently spend the district’s money, including busing resources.
As always with rezoning–anywhere in the country, not just in Flagler–emotions, property interests and yes, prejudice come to the fore as parents attached to one school object to suddenly finding themselves outside the proposed boundaries of that school, and instead rezoned for a school where they would rather not see their children go. It isn’t a secret that in Flagler County, race and socio-economic backgrounds paly at least some role in what is otherwise euphemized as “school choice,” or that schools such as Old Kings and Belle Terre Elementary and Indian Trails Middle are considered–by some–more privileged than schools like Rymfire and Bunnell Elementary and Buddy Taylor Middle School.
“Every school demographic should mirror that of the county we live in,” Bott said.
The district did not downplay racial demographics in its public presentations. Based on district data, Buddy Taylor, which was 56 percent white in 2018-19, would be 63 percent white after rezoning. It was 18.8 percent Black, it would become 15.3 percent Black, while Indian Trails would see its proportion of Black students go from 10.1 percent to 13.6 percent, and its white population fall from 61.6 to 57.4 percent. Buddy Taylor had a free and reduced lunch ratio of 63.6 percent. That would fall slightly to 63.2. Indian Trails had a free and reduced lunch ratio of 48.1 percent. That would jump to 55.7 percent. Categories such as students with disabilities and students for whom English is not the first language would not change significantly.
School choice as the state defines it allows a family to place a child in any school of its choice, outside of one’s zone, but only as long as capacity is available at that school. Currently, that choice is very limited because of overcapacity. That left parents fuming about the proposed plan.
“I specifically wanted to stay away from Buddy Taylor, based on the reviews on greatschools.com, on US News and World Report, on realtor.com and schooldigger.com. Any site that you go to find statistics on this school is very poor,” one woman said at the Buddy Taylor listening session, citing reading and math proficiency scores. “And so my concern is that I bought in an area of Palm Coast Plantation where I knew that it was going to be a safe community, because that’s gated. I also knew that I was zoned for this great school. I want to begin to set my kids up for future success.” But that changed when the zoning maps came out. “So you’re taking my students and the students of Palm Coast Plantation, Grand Haven and Hammock, and you’re saying you’re going to put them in a worse situation where there’s bullying reported constantly at Buddy Taylor, versus looking at Indian Trails. So you’re going to take my kids that I purposely invested my life savings into this home, and I made a strategic decision for my kids’ future, and you’re just washing it away to say, no, you’re going to go to Buddy Taylor, the school that people didn’t want to be at. You’re going to lower our home values because I can tell you 1,000 percent, I never would have bought in Palm Coast Plantation if it was zoned for Buddy Taylor.” The woman said rezoning had “nothing to do” with rebalancing capacity, though she did not spell out what she thought the district was doing. The rezoning map, she said, “infuriates me.”
Steve Furnari, a Flagler Beach business owner and attorney, was more explicit. “Okay, this rezoning project isn’t just about shorter bus times and evenly distributed students,” he said. “The district is also reorganizing students on the basis of race and class. It’s one of the guiding principles of this rezoning process behind all the polite language that the district representatives use, what they’re really saying is that some schools are too white and too rich, some schools are too Black, brown, and poor, and in the name of equity, what they intend with this plan is to bus some students from neighborhoods that are predominantly Black, brown, and low income, further away from homeschools to those that are more white, and more rich and vice versa. They did not ask parents if this is what they want for their children, even though parents choose to live in those neighborhoods because they like their local school.” He called it a “social engineering project based on race and class.”
Mittelstadt was well aware of the “social engineering” undertone to some of the criticism when asked about it today. “But I’m going to ensure that, again, everything that we’re doing is going to be to make sure within our school buildings, all of our students have a great educational experience. And you know, part of that is learning to overcome narrow perspectives, having a sense of tolerance to others who might not have the same privilege or opportunity and experience. And I think that’s what makes the fabric of this county so special, is when you bring forward that diversity. That diversity should be embraced. And we all learn and grow from it.”
After years of rapid growth in Flagler, requiring the addition of schools in quick succession–Belle Terre and Rymfire elementaries, Indian Trails Middle, Matanzas High–it all came to a halt with the housing crash in the middle of the last decade. Flagler County’s student population for over a decade since had been stuck around the 13,000 mark or just below. Rezoning had not been necessary, though in 2012 then-Superintendent Janet Valentine was working on a stillborn plan to turn all elementary and middle schools into K-8 centers, and rezoning discussions restarted in 2017, with the emergence of the plan to shift all sixth graders to the middle schools.
Growth is returning. Bott in her presentations at the two listening tour stops referred to large numbers of developments in the works, though anyone reading news accounts in the past two years would have picked up on the caravans of bulldozers at work around the county. The district anticipates having to build an expansion that would accommodate 380 more students at Matanzas High School by 2023, a new high school for 2,375 students by 2026, and a new middle school for 1,080 students by 2025, according to an impact-fee analysis for the district states. (Impact fees are the one time levy on new construction used to defray the cost of new schools generated by new development.)
But no schools may be built without first reaching near-capacity in existing schools. Over time, the district’s enrollment has become unbalanced from one school to the next for various reasons. Rezoning rebalances the distribution and more evenly moves toward that capacity point that would then trigger the need for a additional schools (which in turn by definition require rezoning).
One parent with children at Old Kings wondered about a “transition plan” that would grandfather children rather than. “I bought my house particularly for him to go to Old Kings,” one parent said, citing her son’s “upheavals” in the past couple of years.
“There absolutely will be consideration for grandfathering if you have students that are currently in a particular school,” Paul peacock, an assistant superintendent, said. But he couldn’t say what that would look like at the high school level. “We’re a big family in Flagler County, we know we have a lot of siblings that go to school together and that’ll be very, very important.” He said figuring that out will be “part of the process.”
“I think it’s time for the school board to look at new schools, because in five years we’re going to be out of room,” one man said–a point no board member would disagree with.
Inevitably, covid’s disruptions were part of parents’ frames of reference as they invoked the last two years’ anxieties to argue that rezoning would only add to those anxieties, at least for those affected. The Palm Coast Plantation parent spoke again toward the end of the Buddy Taylor listening session and at one point claimed, incorrectly, that suicides were on the rise because of covid (suicides dropped 13 percent in Florida in 2020 and 18 percent compared with 2018. On the other hand, a Centers for Disease Control study in June 2021 found a sharp increase in ER visits by teens who have attempted suicide.). She then quite unfairly pointed at Peacock, who was standing just a few feet in front of him, and said: “If somebody does that in your town… that blood will be on your hands.”
That was near the end of the Buddy Taylor listening session, which was attended by a few school board members and Mittelstadt.
“This is not a done deal, it is a process, and part of that process involves your voice,” Jason Wheeler, the district’s chief spokesman, had told the audience.
“The misconception is, ‘why now,'” Mittelstadt said. “Well, why now is because it’s required of us to be responsive to the growth. I am not out there trying to upset or frustrate any of our families. I’m just trying to make sure that we continue to be preparing ourselves as a school district. We know that our capacity is being compressed, in four years, I’m hoping that we’re doing the right things for when and if that need happens, that expansion at the high school and building a new middle school, perhaps based on the way that projections look right now.”
Whether planning for impact fees, new schools or rezoning, the superintendent has something close to an aversion to poor planning, let alone an absence of planning. “You need to look at your out years, otherwise you’re going to be overwhelmed,” Mittelstadt said. “And then all of a sudden, the planning will be rushed. And you’ll have to have those portables in place. Operations will be stressed in other areas, your core facilities within your buildings will be impacted. You’re going to have to run three and four lunches a day to get your kids through your smaller core facilities when you’re have overcrowding on your campus. So, again, all of these are variables that we were considering, we’re trying to be mindful of, not to have happened to Flagler schools.” Meanwhile, she said, “You need to make sure we’re paying attention to the conversations that are out there.”