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School officials differ on expansion of Beachland

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of April 12, 2012)

While the residents of Central Beach may have won a round in their battle against a school plan to cut through a native oak hammock to accommodate school bus and parent pickups at Beachland Elementary, another battle could brewing.

Just how big will Beachland Elementary get?

And if it does grow, will the oak hammock, something residents have spent more than a year trying to protect, be destroyed to make room for more students and classrooms?

A top school administrator who oversees construction projects and Beachland’s own principal have been under the impression that the school , built in the 1950s on the barrier island, will grow to 750 students in the coming years so it will conform to a six-year-old mandate by the school board.

Not so, say current board members Carol Johnson and Jeff Pegler.

“Beachland is never going to be a 750-student school,” Pegler said.

Johnson, a veteran board member, was on the board back in 2006 when it voted to increase the size of the district's elementary schools to handle 750 students. She said it was never the board's intention to force all schools to expand.

She said the mandate was mainly meant for future schools and that Beachland, the district’s magnet schools and the exceptional student education school were never meant to grow to 750 pupils.

“Yes we did vote, but common sense does have to come into play here,” Johnson said. “Beachland is pretty much landlocked because of our commitment to that very vital living hammock. We made those exceptions when we were talking about a 750-student body population.”

If that sticks, that would be a relief to residents of Central Beach who said they felt waylaid during a meeting in late March where school officials, police and even city Manager Jim O’Connor were in attendance.

Both Susan Olson, the director of facilities, planning and construction, and Principal Carol Wilson spoke to roughly 80 people as if the expansion of Beachland was not up for discussion because it had long ago been decided by the board.

Both Johnson and Pegler said there is clearly a disconnect between the board wishes and the district administration.

Both said that needs to be addressed, and expressed regret that the meeting and its lengthy Power-Point presentation had apparently not been reviewed by the board before being shown to the Central Beach residents.

Central Beach resident and Indian River Audubon Society member James Shea said it felt like a small bomb had exploded when he and the rest of the residents at the meeting were told of the 750 number.

“Beachland and other elementary schools are supposed to be neighborhood schools, not overcrowded educational warehouses,” said Shea. “If the board plans to put 750 students at Beachland Elementary, then the proposed traffic corridors through the woods were just the foot in the door. There is no way the campus can support that number of students without clear cutting the woods for more classrooms, a new cafeteria (and a) parking lot.”

The school with its 600 students has been over capacity for the past two years, largely because of a spike in enrollment when the economy soured and many children who had previously attended private schools enrolled in Beachland Elementary, said Wilson.

About half the students do not live on the island. Of the 300 or so youngsters who live on the mainland, 50 do not live in what is Beachland’s zoned district, said Wilson.

Some 17 waivers were granted to children of teachers or staff, and others were granted because a parent worked on the island, said Wilson. “We are bursting at the seams,” she said.

Wilson said that since enrollment at Beachland rose beyond capacity a few years ago, it has been next to impossible to get an out-of-zone waiver to attend the school.

The number of out-of-zone students is expected to shrink after the current school year when 14 of the children of teachers and staff move onto middle school.

While Wilson said she and the district are committed to saving the trees after hearing the outcry from residents, it doesn’t explain the disconnect between the board and top administrators who have been working with architects to come up with a plan that cut through the woods.

A week after the latest outcry, the board met to discuss the administration's plan to cut through the woods and reroute bus and parent pick up off of Indian River Drive.

As it stands now, the board likes the idea for the parental pick-up area to be moved to the rear of the school as opposed to the front. Instead of having cars queue up on Indian River Drive, parents will line up on Date Palm before heading onto the school grounds.

Not everyone, including one of the most ardent and vocal supporters of protecting the hammock and the creatures that call the woods home, likes that idea.

“It’s another haphazard plan,” said school parent Dean Heran.

“I think this has been so mishandled,” Heran said. “I think that they just came up with another hair-brained scheme so that we’ll have to go back to the original plan (of cutting through the woods).”

Johnson was adamant last week that she never thought the traffic plan would entail cutting through the hammock. She said she’d like answers as to why the plan, something that has been controversial from the get-go, got so far without the board’s knowledge.

“We need to address our internal communication,” Johnson said.