Suwannee Democrat

October 3, 2013

HamCo school facilities addressed at workshop

Joyce Marie Taylor
Suwannee Democrat

Jasper — Violet Brown from the Florida Department of Education Facilities Department gave a presentation to the Hamilton County School Board at their Sept. 23 workshop to address the county’s educational facilities and how the DOE may be able to help.

“Basically, our office is here to help facilities succeed,” said Brown. “Your county is in a consortium district, so we do provide a lot of services for the smaller districts.”

Hamilton County Superintendent of Schools Thomas Moffses said he and Brown worked together back in May when plans were being developed to make modifications at the high school to accommodate the administrative department moving over there from their current location at the old middle school. Those modifications, Moffses said, should be done in about a week.

Another item of discussion he had with Brown at that time had to do with safety concerns within the district in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, and how the DOE might be able to assist, as far as funding for improvements in safety and security.

“After we finished with the high school, we went through all the elementary schools,” said Moffses.

Brown said her office was in Hamilton County in 2011 to look at some of the school facilities, and that she was aware that the high school is the only hurricane-prepared, FEMA authorized shelter in the county.

The facilities department, Brown said, also oversees the five-year district work plan and Florida Inventory of School Houses (FISH), which has a database of every inch of school property in the state.

“We make sure that the database is accurate and up to date,” said Brown.

She also said PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) maintenance dollars, which haven’t been available for public schools for the last three years because it was appropriated for charter schools, is a lifeline for small counties. She also noted that classrooms must be at least 600 square feet, which is important when it comes to getting PECO dollars because it is calculated on square footage. The district, she said, may have been short-changed in the past if the FISH data submitted was incorrect.

“A million dollars to a small district like Hamilton County for PECO maintenance is a lot of money,” said Brown. “Hopefully, it will be coming back.”

Brown said her department is small, but has a big mission and one of the things they provide for school districts is the ability to do educational plant surveys.

“Anytime a district considers new construction, remodeling or renovation projects and are using state funds, it has to go through our office and we will help make sure you have that documentation so that you’re covered,” said Brown.

Building replacement studies is an important function of the facilities department, Brown explained, and there have been several done in Hamilton County since 2007 at both North and South Hamilton. At these two schools, she said, there are numerous buildings of different ages. She noted that one building sits on jacks. At one of the schools, she added, the students have to walk across the street to get to another building on campus, and there are also some unique challenges with the parent pick up area.

“If a building is 50 years of age or has serious infrastructure problems, architects come out and look at it and evaluate whether it’s cheaper to replace a building than it is to keep remodeling, renovating or putting money into,” she explained.

Brown said the biggest concern in the country, the state and the community is safety and security, and that in her school district tour in May she found many challenges in Hamilton County that they may be facing in the future. She referenced testing capacity, broadband capability, new Common Core standards, FCAT, End-of-Course exams, and virtual education courses at the high school, as well as security issues at the schools.

“The facilities are really stretched,” she said. “It’s not just this district. It’s all over the state.”

The Special Facility Construction Account Program is something Brown said the district utilized in order to build the high school. Her office oversees that program, as well.

“It allows you to come to us for one construction project,” said Brown. “The payback is pledging your 1.5 mils to the program.”

Moffses thanked Brown for her assistance with the remodeling at the high school.

“We could not have done it without her approval,” he told the board members. 

He also clarified to the board that neither North nor South will be able to get funding from the state for renovations due to the ages of the buildings.