Taxpayer-funded plan to overhaul Duval County schools expected to cost billions more than first projected

A major plan to revamp and replace dated Duval County Public School buildings is now projected to cost billions more than originally anticipated.

The construction of Southside Estates Elementary School is a prime example. The district said due to factors like inflation, the project is going to cost about 94% more than initially expected. Now, the chair of the Duval County School Board said the board is regrouping to see how it can bridge the gap.

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The plan for 28 new schools and more than $1 billion in repairs for Duval County schools was expected to cost $1.91 billion back in 2019. Now, the cost is projected to reach up to $3.91 billion.

“It was eye-opening,” said school board chair Darryl Willie. “We knew, as we saw the COVID-related inflation sort of coming that we were going to have some sort of shortfall. But we didn’t know how much.”

Seventy-five percent of the plan is funded by the half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2020. The rest of it is funded through property taxes. The money is specifically earmarked for new school construction, backlogged maintenance projects and security upgrades with each school’s to-do list spelled out in an online dashboard.

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The district has broken ground on several major new projects since the sales tax was implemented.

At Highlands Elementary on the Northside, construction is set to wrap up in August of 2024. But the cost of the construction has gone up to more than $53 million, a cost higher than initially anticipated by about 85%.

News4JAX asked Willie if some of the planned schools could be on the chopping block.

“We’re gonna have a conversation with the full board. Our intent is to ensure that every single thing that we put into that master facilities plan gets done. At the end of the day, we also want to balance that with being fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars,” Willie said.

The good news for the school board is the projected revenue for the projects from the half-cent sales tax and property taxes has also gone up with inflation. It’s now projected to raise up to $3.5 billion.

But about a quarter of that must go toward charter schools, which aren’t included in the district’s master facilities plan. Overall, that plan could face a deficit of $1.4 billion.

“We haven’t talked about extending or increasing the millage rate as well. What we want to do now is really just look at the plan. Look at where we are, every single year that we move forward, we knew there was going to be adjustments, so we’re not looking to go out to the public and ask for more money at this point, what we’re going to do is look internally, see what things we can fix and tweak inside and then see how we can move forward,” Willie said.

Another factor at play is enrollment at Duval County Public Schools is also projected to drop in the coming years, which could mean less money will be needed for improvements.

Willie said each board member is assessing the individual needs and changes in their district and in the coming weeks they’ll be coming to the table about what needs to be adjusted.

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