Florida: Duval County Schools Updates to Cost Taxpayers Billions More Than Anticipated

District leaders say factors like inflation and supply chain issues have significantly impacted the projected costs of a 15-year master facility plan.

Florida: Duval County Schools Updates to Cost Taxpayers Billions More Than Anticipated

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A taxpayer-funded initiative to improve and replace dated Duval County Public School buildings is now projected to cost billions more than anticipated.

In 2020, Duval County voters agreed to a half-cent sales tax to help finance 75% of the $1.9 billion master facility plan for new school construction, backlogged maintenance projects, and security upgrades, according to News4. The remainder is funded through property tax. Administrators now predict the projects will cost closer to $3.9 billion due to various economic factors such as inflation and supply chain issues.

The district’s plan, which is outlined here, specifically calls for 180 total projects over 15 years, including building 28 new schools, The Florida Times-Union reports. While projected revenue for the projects has gone up with inflation and is now projected to raise up to $3.5 billion, about a quarter of those funds must go toward charter schools that aren’t included in the district’s master facilities plan, creating a $1.4 billion deficit in the new final price.

The district has broken ground on several major projects since the sales tax was enacted. The first school built with sales tax money was Rutledge Pearson Elementary, according to The Florida Times-Union. The school opened in August and cost $40.4 million — 41% more than first planned. In Florida, from 2018 to 2022, the cost to build an elementary school increased about 21% statewide to an average of $264 per foot, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.

Since then, costs have skyrocketed even more. A project currently underway at Highlands Elementary School is scheduled to finish in August 2024. The cost has increased by more than $53 million — 85% higher than initially anticipated. Construction at Southside Estates Elementary School is expected to cost 94% more than the district anticipated when the facility plan was finished in 2019. Ribault High School, which is slated to open in 2025, is now budgeted to cost $120.5 million — a whopping 107% more than anticipated.

Last month, retired Assistant Superintendent Paul Soares told school board members that school officials used “standard construction costs” to estimate expenses but that prices for concrete, steel, and lumber “clearly skyrocketed” after the pandemic disrupted the supply chain. Wages for building crews have also increased significantly.

Soares also said builders addressed delays in getting basic equipment such as generators and HVAC units by using short-term rentals and passing on the cost to customers. The added expense drove up bids for school construction work.

School Board Chair Darryl Willie said the board anticipated COVID-related inflation to create “some sort of shortfall” but not to this extent. However, he said the district plans to see all projects through and that budget cuts and tax hikes are currently not being considered.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Another factor that may impact costs is that enrollment at Duval County Public Schools is projected to drop in the coming years, which would mean less state and local funding. Across the country, public school enrollment is down 2.09% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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