The Flagler County School Board will not sell the 43-year-old Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club it has owned since 1996. It will not lease it, either, and not because it doesn’t wish it could do either: there simply are no buyers nor eligible organizations that could lease the facility with all the constraints that attach to leasing school board property, such as the requirement that the renter is a non-profit and that a proportion of the facility’s time is devoted to district students.
That leave two options for the financially troubled club: keeping things as they are, or turning the grounds into a facility used only by Flagler County school students in kindergarten through 12th grade, what the board refers to as the K-12 option.
Maintaining the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club as is would be problematic. That’s what’s led to deficits and now-monthly discussions by the administration and the school board about how to end those deficits. Running a club that primarily benefits an adult population is not the district’s business, let alone its core business, which is educating children. The district does have an Adult Education division. The division oversees the club. But it’s primarily an educational division. It coordinates adult classes, runs the district’s extended day programs (the child-care set-ups before and after school), and runs the district’s Flagler Technical College, which focuses on vocational skills. Running a health spa, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a weight room still falls outside those missions.
That’s what the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club is about. It’s broken even or made a little money in good years. It’s lost money otherwise, and the district’s general fund has had to underwrite the loss, essentially taking money away from K-12 programs to subsidize a program that benefits a few older adults. That may work in Palm Coast, where the city has routinely over the years filled deficits at its golf and tennis clubs. But the school board is not willing to keep that up at the Belle Terre Club. “Our goal is to not be in the negative,” School Board Chairman Trevor Tucker said today in the latest discussion about the club’s future.
The board today talked as if it was down to two options. But that’s looking at it very generously. It really has only one option: the K-12 model.
The reason: the math presented at today’s workshop just doesn’t add up if it were to attempt the option of keeping the facility going as a club.
Current fees could almost double to $375 annually. But that’s assuming the club could raise its membership total to 500. It only has 200 right now. It hasn’t had much more than that over the past few years. Steeply raising the rates and trying to more than double the membership begins to look like a readily identifiable object circling in the sky.
If membership levels stayed where they are today, the annual fee would have to be raised to $1,033, “assuming that all 200 would be able to take that increase in price,” Adult Education Director Renee Stauffacher said. It is very unlikely that many of the current members would support such a steep membership fee. A membership hemorrhage is more likely, and with it the difficult math. There are additional uses of the facility through such day users, or people whose insurance benefits underwrite some use of the facility, resulting in additional revenue for the club, but not enough to erase deficits. The district will send out a survey to its members by email to test reactions to fee increases.
With today’s math, that leaves the K-12 model as the only realistic options. The board today discussed that option as if it were its own, but it may end up being a distant hybrid of the two options. The community at large would not be locked out of using the facility entirely. As a K-12 campus, the club would be turned into a facility rentable like any of the schools, or segments of the schools, whether it’s churches or groups or clubs looking for space. The district would have a rate schedule, including a rate schedule for the pool and the gym. That’s not entirely new: the pool is leased to the Synchro Belles, for example, the synchronized swimming team. Using the pool on a rental basis goes for $30 an hour.
But the core use of the facility would change. And it would do so at a propitious time for the district. For the first time in a decade, the district’s enrollment is growing again on pace with a rapidly growing population in the county. If the last school was built well over a decade ago, the next new school may have to be built in just a few years. There’s a growing space crunch in Flagler schools, a crunch the board will discuss at a special meeting today at 5 p.m., when the board is expected to adopt a new rate schedule for impact fees on new construction to help pay for new schools. That context informed Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s proposal regarding the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club.
“So as we look at managing growth over the next couple of years, and we look at our student stations and our capacity within our elementary, middle and high, that’s where we’re transitioning our sixth graders to middle school,” the superintendent said. “So if you look at middle school the next couple of years, we’ve got programs that are utilizing space in those buildings right now that we need to relocate.”
The programs could be moved to the grounds of the Belle Terre Club, where portables are set up as classroom space, giving the programs autonomy and alleviating the anticipated space crunch at the schools. The programs could expand and diversify. “So it would be a model that we would have to develop over the course of next year. But given that site and this location, I think the school district is in a situation where we should start thinking about how we want to redefine what we’re doing at all of our other sites, knowing that we’re being constricted with space and capacity challenges.”
School Board member Colleen Conklin, who is looking for every possible angle to preserve community-member access to the club–its pool, its gym–is interested. But she’s more interested in a hybrid approach: the K-12 model, plus some community access–what would in essence replicate the use of school campuses under a facilities-use agreement, when schools are not in session.
“As a school district our mission is to educate our students,” Mittelstadt said. “So this is unique in that we’re also operating a club that provides adult access to recreation. That’s not our forte, that’s the county and the city. They should be standing up those recreational opportunities or private providers either through memberships or other access to different facilities.”
“But that’s the win-win I’m kind of thinking of,” Conklin said, throwing on the table a new approach: what if county government took over the senior-services aspect of the club’s clientele? Mittlestadt wouldn’t be opposed to that if it became a county responsibility to run that part of the program, using the facility only as a facility (rather than as its own grounds).
“I’m trying to figure out the best way that we can all do this. I think your K-12 model works to the best of our ability, but I want to know more details about how it would be designed, so that would allow for community use with special entrance and special funds,” Board member Cheryl Massaro. But like Conklin, she’d want to preserve some community access to the pool and the weight room. “There’s got to be a win-win here for both sides. And that’s what I’m trying to get to. If we can make that work through the K-12, I would support the K-12 hands down.”
“You’re trying to meld two models to satisfy two different needs,” School Board member Janet McDonald said. “So we have to be really clear on what we’re going to ask.” Board member Jill Woolbright sees the K-12 model as potentially “like an expansion,” she said. “That saves us from having to build buildings and expand buildings.”
Tucker, the chairman, said the next steps are two-fold: first, the board would want to know what a K-12 model would look like, including what current school district programs could end up operating out of the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club (assuming it kept that name). Second, the board wants to know what current club members would face, cost-wise, if membership fees were raised to account for the deficit. Would they even able to “handle or afford the cost of bringing up the price to satisfy this facility,” he said.
Meanwhile, nothing will happen this coming school year. “Let’s utilize this year to get there by next June,” the superintendent said. “Sometime next year, we have a clear picture of sort of that facility looks like to Flagler schools.”