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Affluent county has the highest use of portables

Inside a sprawling maintenance shelter at Clay High School, the kids slouch in their seats in Reggie Heath's beginning carpentry class.

Heath gets them in gear and outside for the class assignment: building a portable classroom for the Clay County school system.

"This is the main reason they come to school," said Heath of his charges, many of whom are on the edge of dropping out.

Heath gives these teenagers a way to make a living with their hands. And the students help build on a Clay County tradition: portable classrooms.

This conservative bedroom community south of Jacksonville has the highest median household income in Florida _ up to $40,385, according to recent census data. But it has chosen the cheapest solution to keep up with student growth.

About 55 percent of Clay's classrooms are portables _ more than any other school district in Florida. For Clay's youngest children, the figure is higher: Portables make up nearly 70 percent of elementary school classrooms. Statewide, about 15 percent of classrooms are portables.

Clay County schools have more than 800 portables. Four elementary schools are made entirely of portables. The high school kids in carpentry classes can't keep up with the demand for portables. The district has had to hire contractors.

As school crowding has grown worse, other school districts have tried to raise taxes to build schools and move children out of portables.

But in Clay, the all-Republican School Board lowered the tax rate levied for school construction projects two years ago. They returned to the prior rate just recently, after a push from a citizens' committee.

The last time voters were asked to approve a bond issue to build schools was 15 years ago. It failed miserably, and nobody has tried for bonds or a sales tax increase since, said Ben Wortham, deputy school superintendent.

"You're not going to raise revenue in this district easy," Wortham said.

On a larger scale, the same scene is being played out in the state capital, where legislators are meeting this week about solutions to school crowding.

Conservative lawmakers do not want to raise taxes to build schools. And Clay County's influence is powerful. Incoming House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, is a former Clay County School Board chairman. Sen. Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, heads the Senate's budget committee on education. His children go to school in portables in Clay.

A country club life

Portables have long been part of Clay County, with its landscape of striking contrasts.

From the road, passers-by see a nice brick entrance to Clay's elementary schools, the sections that house administrative offices, cafeterias and school libraries.

Around back are rows of barracks-style wooden portables.

In a residential development called Eagle Harbor, houses sell for $130,000 to $300,000. In the middle of this pricey real estate: Fleming Island Elementary, a school with more than 50 portables.

"Understandably, from a curbside appeal, the portables are not appealing," said school architect Brian Boatright.

"We tried to put them in back, to hide them as well as we could."

Parents see them clearly.

"I see kids that live a country club life, and we don't have enough money for our schools. I can't understand that," said Amy Burgess, a parent and volunteer at Fleming Island.

Household median income may be high in Clay County, school officials say, but the county still does not have the tax base that other counties enjoy. Most of the growth has been in residential rather than commercial property, and most homeowners get homestead exemptions that decrease their tax bills.

The School Board for several years authorized the 2.0-mills allowed for school construction and remodeling projects _ which doesn't require voter approval. A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. A $150,000 house minus the $25,000 homestead would pay $125 in school taxes _ the same rate levied in Tampa Bay area counties.

But in 1995, the School Board cut the rate to 1.75 to offset a small property tax increase for school operations. The board agreed to that increase because it was a good deal _ part of a state program that gave extra money to districts with low tax bases, said George Copeland, Clay's assistant superintendent for business affairs.

Only three other school districts made a similar cut, according to state records. Several counties raised the school construction tax at the same time to build more schools.

"You can't fight it'

Ask educators in Clay County what they think of portables and the response sounds rehearsed. Teachers say they like being independent from the main building; portables are quieter than regular classrooms; the kids don't know the difference; and parents have gotten used to them.

Engineer Allyn Tidball counts himself among such parents.

"My first impression, was, you've got to be kidding. They go to school in those? They look like a trailers," said Tidball, who went to school in traditional buildings up north. He sent his daughters to school in Clay's portables.

After 16 years in the county, he has come to accept portables. "It's such fact of life here."

Others feel differently about portables.

"I think it's disgusting," parent Germaine Overstreet said. Overstreet has lived in Clay about 3{ years. Three of her four children are learning in portables. The first-grader is in a permanent classroom. Among other concerns, she worries about her kids being safe in a severe storm.

She and Tidball were part of a strategic planning team last year that charted the future for Clay schools. The educators, business people and residents recommended that Clay reduce its reliance on portables and raise money for construction by increasing property and sales taxes and issuing bonds.

The School Board agreed to reinstate the 2.0-mill property tax, effective for 1997 tax bills, but will take up the other revenue ideas later.

Overstreet is hopeful but realistic.

Longtime residents "say you can't fight it," she said. "You just live, you just exist."