PBC Schools Have a New Plan, and Is Brightline Still Coming to Boca?

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By a 6-1 vote, the Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday approved Superintendent Donald Fennoy’s revised reopening plan. It will go to the Florida Department of Education, which rejected the first version.

No campuses can open until the county enters Phase 2 of Gov. DeSantis’ COVID-19 reopening plan. Once that happened, Fennoy wanted to bring back students in stages, beginning with special-needs children, kindergartners, first-graders, sixth-graders and ninth-graders. The department didn’t like that.

Under the new plan, education will be online only when schools open on Aug. 31. When campuses can open, however, students can return if their parents want them in class, not in stages. Others will continue to take virtual classes.

School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri noted that  many hard decisions still await. The board must approve protocols for a return to campus. When discussion on Wednesday veered off into those details, board member Karen Brill said the priority of the moment was passing a plan that the state would approve.

Next Wednesday, the board will discuss those protocols. COVID-19 metrics that change daily and weekly will affect those discussions. I’ll have more in my Tuesday post.

Is Brightline still happening?

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Boca Brightline station and garage concept view, courtesy of the City of Boca Raton

Though Brightline has ended its partnership with Virgin Trains, plans for the Boca Raton station continue.

In its most recent bond filing, Brightline announced that it had ended its affiliation with Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Two years ago, Brightline had touted the investment as “leveraging the Virgin brand and marketing expertise for existing and future developments.” Brightline already had rebranded its Miami station as Virgin Miami Central.

A Brightline spokesman said the company had nothing to add beyond the document with the announcement. But one could assume that Virgin’s recent financial problems prompted a reassessment of the partnership.

Virgin Atlantic, which like all airlines has suffered greatly from COVID-19 restrictions, just negotiated a bailout with the United Kingdom. To do so, the company had to file for bankruptcy protection in the United States. Virgin Australia also just announced a restructing plan. In addition, news reports noted the high cost of licensing deals that Virgin-branded companies must strike with Virgin Group.

For Brightline, the Virgin name came with cross-marketing potential. In 2019, Branson said, Virgin Atlantic brought more passengers to Orlando than any airline. Brightline plans to complete its Orlando airport station at the end of 2022. Brightline would like to bring Disney World visitors to South Florida. Branson promised travel packages.

Despite the split—which Virgin is contesting—Brightline and city officials continue to meet regularly on the planned Boca Raton station, according to a city spokeswoman. In September 2019, when the city council approved spending most of the cost for a parking garage next to the station, Brightline executives said they would like to receive all approvals from the community appearance board, the planning and zoning board and the council by the end of this year and start construction in early 2021.

COVID-19 restrictions also have hurt Brightline. The company discontinued service in late March. A spokesman said the company is “evaluating” when to start up again, “based on (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines.” With all of South Florida still in Phase 1 reopening, there’s little market for commuters or people attending large events.

Yet the spokesman said Brightline continues talks with Miami-Dade officials on a commuter line just for that county. Brightline would not operate the system.

Whatever happens with that proposal, it does not affect the Boca Raton station. With other new stations in Aventura and Port Miami, it would be part of the Miami-Orlando service that Brightline hopes then to extend to Tampa.

Assuming Boca Raton and Brightline keep to the proposed schedule, the station could open in late 2021 or early 2022. Perhaps by then the virus will be under control and the prospects for commuter rail will have improved.

Boca Raton Beach and Park District drama

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Here’s an update on the issue raised in the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District election.

In a news release, Nanci-Jo Feinberg and Eric Pendergraft charged incumbents Erin Wright and Steve Engel with being part of an “illegal taxation and voter disenfranchisement scandal.” The challengers found that residents of Boca Raton’s Royal Palm Polo neighborhood got ballots that did not include the beach and park candidates even though Royal Palm Polo residents pay taxes to the district.

On the basic facts, Feinberg and Pendergraft appear to be correct. After reviewing the issue, Executive Director Briann Harms said the district did fail to annex the area after the city did so in late 2013, when the property was vacant. All other Boca Raton residents also are within the district boundaries and thus correctly pay taxes to both agencies.

So I must correct one thing from Tuesday’s post. I understood that annexation into the city automatically meant annexation into the district. It doesn’t. As Harms acknowledged, “a “mistake between agencies” led to Royal Palm Polo homeowners paying taxes to the district while not being part of the district.

That mistake predates Harms’ tenure. She became director just a few months ago. It occurred when Art Koski was serving as interim director—a position he wound up holding for several years—after the retirement of Robert Langford.

Harms said she contacted the property appraiser’s office and found that a “misconnection” led to the mistake. She is speaking with the district’s attorney “and the other agencies involved to find out how this came to be and obviously take corrective action, once it is clear what that will be.” It could mean annexing the area and/or refunding back taxes.

Having said that, there doesn’t seem to be any “scandal.” When Boca Raton annexed the area, no one lived there. It’s a stretch to blame this on Wright and Engle.

A Royal Palm Polo resident raised it with the challengers, who are basically running as a slate. Feinberg is challenging Write in Seat 3 while Pendergraft is challenging Engel in Seat 5. They qualified one minute apart on June 5.

It all strikes me as a bureaucratic lapse, not a conspiracy theory. The voters will decide.

New Delray fire station stalls

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Delray Beach Fire Rescue responding to the Train Depot fire earlier this year

Routine projects in Delray Beach have a way of becoming anything but routine.

The latest example is the fire station on Linton Boulevard. It has needed replacing for years. Conditions are so bad—the building has mold—that firefighters have had to move out.

Under former Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus, the project swelled in scope. De Jesus, who also had been fire chief, wanted to include an emergency operations center with the station. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, the city’s makeshift center leaked and communications failed.

So what had been a $4 million rebuild turned into a $12 million, three-story project, as city commissioners heard during Tuesday’s budget workshop. George Gretsas, the city manager whom the commission suspended in June, flagged the item and returned it to the cheaper fire station rebuild.

But the company seeking the work submitted only its qualifications, not the full price. So the city will try to negotiate an acceptable cost for what now is a two-story project. If that fails, everything will start over. The firefighters will continue to wait on new space and the city will hope that a hurricane doesn’t test the emergency operations center.