Diamond Park purchase subverts interlocal deal

Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 12:55 a.m.
It should come as no surprise to the Alachua County School Board that some are questioning the wisdom of their intent to buy the Diamond Sports Park on SW 122nd Street as the site for a new high school, when the decision was made with no input from either the public or the County Commission.
The location of a new school has enormous consequences for growth in surrounding areas. Growth requires new roads, parks, public facilities, and services, all of which are the responsibility of the County Commission, which must find a way to pay for them. This is why the County Commission must ultimately approve the site for a new school.
In an Aug. 29 Sun guest column, Alachua County School Board Chairman Wes Eubank stated that County Manager Randy Reid "informed us that the County Commission was not interested in participating with the School Board. Considering that the county had initiated the idea, the Board members were surprised."
This purchase has been a unilateral initiative of the School Board, undertaken without consultation with the County Commission. Reid was conveying a statement approved unanimously by the County Commission that we did not support the plan to build a high school at that location, and would instead prefer to negotiate the possible purchase of the site by the county as a recreational facility.
The School Board's own data project a decline in the high school population in the immediate future, with a rebound to current levels not expected for some fifteen years. With this in mind, I inquired during a joint County Commission/School Board meeting earlier this year whether the School Board had made any decisions regarding the need for a future high school. I was told "no" by Eubank, who was chairing the meeting.
As justification for its decision to bypass normal planning procedures, public hearings, collaboration with other elected bodies, and a comprehensive evaluation of potential sites, the School Board has offered the argument that the owners were in a hurry to sell, and "banking" the land now might save money if they decide to build a school in the area in the future.
Given the profound and irreversible consequences of the siting of a new public school, the expression "penny wise and pound foolish" applies here. Even minor variations in growth patterns can have major impacts on the long-term costs of providing public services, and on the quality of life experienced by thousands of citizens in the surrounding areas. It's not a decision that should be rushed, just because a group of landowners are in a hurry to sell.
The School Board is now talking of appointing a "School Planning Advisory Committee" to review their decision. Hastily assembling a hand-picked committee to rubber stamp a predetermined location turns the public input process on its head, and subverts the intent of the interlocal agreement between the School Board and Alachua County.
For reasons the public may never fully understand, public staff overstepped their authority in prematurely negotiating an extremely consequential agreement, and released the details to the media before either of the bodies elected to represent the public had even heard of it. Both elected bodies should now rein in their respective staffs, make clear that the timeline of private investors will not be permitted to whipsaw critical public policy decisions, and meet to cooperatively resolve this issue.
Mike Byerly is an Alachua County Commissioner.

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