Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 21, 2020
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) and the Nassau County School Board (NCSB) held their annual joint meeting on Wednesday, February 19, 2020, at the School Administration Building on Atlantic Avenue in Fernandina Beach.
Nassau County School Superintendent Dr. Kathy K. Burns delivered a status report on the state of the School District, which serves 12,261 students. She highlighted the District’s accomplishments and achievements over the past year and provided information on the District’s budget, almost three-quarters of which goes to salaries of teachers, administrators and support staff. She explained that the School District will submit a referendum to voters during the August Primary Election Cycle to increase county school taxes by one mill to fund improvements in mental health services, technology and school safety.
A thread that carried through almost all the discussions between the two elected boards was funding concerns. Florida school districts are highly regulated by the state. Local districts have little juggling room to redirect funds from one state-mandated purpose to another. Burns explained that many capital needs can only be met incrementally over years because the district does not either have the funds or the authority to accelerate the pace. The district is required to maintain a 3 percent reserve.
School Board Member Gail Cook expressed concerns that unfunded mandates pushed down to the local level from the state might alter plans for spending the new tax money sought via referendum. Superintendent Burns said that she applauded the Legislature’s goal to increase the starting salary of teachers, which would help Florida schools attract and retain more teachers. However, without the accompanying funding, money from mandated salary raises would probably come from the one mill increase the district was seeking to fund other priorities.
The boards addressed the possibility of using School Board property on Atlantic Avenue for shared recreational use. Burns announced that on March 6 at 6:00 p.m. the District was hosting “Gathering on the Green” on their property to support the arts. The NCSB will evaluate that experience prior to making any agreement with the City to partner in future events. School Board property is used for parking for Shrimpfest and St. Michael’s annual carnival.
City Commissioner Chip Ross asked if the NCSB would support adding the administration building, the former Fernandina Beach High School, to the City’s local historic district. He claimed that the building is not being well maintained, despite its almost iconic status to many in the community who attended school there. School Board Member Jamie Deonas agreed that no one wants to see the building fall into disrepair, but he questioned the value to the NCSB of including it in the historic district.
Burns said that three years ago the NCSB had to decide whether to spend half a million dollars on school buildings in need of repairs or the administration building. Cook again stressed that there are state restrictions on spending money for infrastructure needs.
Ross asked if the NCSB would consider selling all or part of the Atlantic Avenue property to the city. School Board Chair Dr. Donna Martin said that the Nassau County School District (NCSD) administration has no place to move to, nor is a new building on their mandated Five Year Capital Improvement Plan. Ross then asked if the NCSB would consider giving the City the right of first refusal should they at some point decide to sell the building. Generally, the Board appeared to have no objection, but Cook asked School Board Attorney Brett Steger to see if such action would be allowed under law.
At that point Fernandina Beach Vice Mayor Len Kreger said, “I didn’t know that we wanted to buy this building.” He added that the City’s Comprehensive Plan calls for City Hall to be located downtown.
A discussion ensued recapping a recommendation of the City’s Historic District Council (HDC) to pursue adding the administration building to the City’s historic district. NCSD Board members were advised that there was no imminent action contemplated, but that a general discussion had taken place at the previous night’s joint FBCC/HDC meeting.
In response to a question from School Board Member Deonas, the City responded that their administration building could be incorporated into the historic district despite their objections, but that was not contemplated at this time. The process of expanding the local historic district is a lengthy one, requiring much notice and public meetings. School Board Member Cook again raised legal concerns as to whether the City could take such action.
Some City Commissioners had received constituent concerns that the NCSB might sell land it owns on Hickory Street which is zoned residential (R-1). City Commissioner Ross asked if the NCSB would be willing to have the land rezoned Public-Institutional to allay fears of development. The NCSB indicated that it had no intention of selling the land in question, but wanted to retain existing zoning in case future needs might require a sale.
The Boards discussed using the City’s PEG Channel to offer programming provided by students that would be of community interest. Superintendent Burns indicated that while there was support for this idea, the incompatibility of the NCSD’s technology seemed to rule it out. She will work with the City’s IT department to further investigate.
Commissioner Ross sought NCSB input on the idea of creating a dog park on city-owned land that lies north of the Utilities Plant and water tower on N. 11th Street. NCSD Facilities Director Jeffrey Bunch explained that such an activity would severely impact access of 18-wheeled trucks to School District warehouses. School Board members also advised that noise from the park could interfere with classes that are held in neighboring school buildings.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.