Update On New School Plans And What’s Going On Behind the Scenes With The Delray CRA?

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Because the Florida Department of Education continues to delay Boca Raton’s new elementary school, local officials have developed a backup plan.

The school would go on 15 acres next to Don Estridge Middle on Spanish River Boulevard. The Palm Beach County School District budget has money for the project. There’s a demonstrated need for more elementary school space in the city.

State bureaucrats, however, must approve any new public school. They note that there are underused elementary schools as close as Delray Beach. Make use of those seats first, the bureaucrats say. Perhaps the district could bus Boca Raton kids to Delray or elsewhere.

The unnamed school—05C to the district—is to house students from Addison Mizner Elementary during the rebuilding of their school on Southwest 12th Avenue. Construction on 05C is supposed to begin this fall.

So if state approval is delayed indefinitely, there’s a contingency. School board member Frank Barbieri, who represents Boca Raton, told me this week that the district could put temporary classrooms on the 05C site for the Addison Mizner students. It obviously wouldn’t be the same as a traditional classroom, but the district would avoid delays on building the new school. That arrangement could last five years.

Whatever happens with the state, it would not affect the schedule for building the new Verde Elementary. That project and Addison Mizner will be financed with money from the sales tax surcharge. Because they are rebuilds, state approval is not needed. Both new schools will expand to add middle school grades.

Though it’s good to know that Boca Raton’s school building program can otherwise continue, the delay on 05C represents another example of the hostility from the state to traditional public schools. Republican leaders in Tallahassee love to preach local control when it comes to the federal government, but here is the state trampling on a local decision.

I had reported on the delay a month ago. Barbieri had hoped that the state would have agreed by now. In an email, Mayor Scott Singer said, “I wouldn’t characterize (the delay) as a hardening, but rather more bureaucracy.”

Singer said he has contacted Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart, a member of the Board of Education and the governor’s office “to ask them all to expedite their review and approval.” School district officials sent documents explaining the timing. The school was to have gone elsewhere, but the land donation fell through and the city stepped in. Singer said the city’s district’s lobbyists “have been working diligently.”

Barbieri is less diplomatic. He noted in a Facebook post that the district requested 05C and two other schools back in January. He said the Board of Education “has been using stalling tactics. . .It has never taken this long to obtain approval” for a new school in Palm Beach County.

Barbieri added, “It’s ludicrous that the school district has to get approval to build a new school because we are using taxpayer dollars, yet a charter school that also uses taxpayer dollars (can) build wherever it wants without anybody’s approval.”

The school crowding issue—and bureaucracy

Since school crowding became an issue in Boca Raton last year, some uninformed residents, city council members and candidates have criticized the city for not acting sooner and more forcefully.

The council has advocated when major issues arose. A recent example was the boundary change at Calusa Elementary. When the new 05C elementary became available, the council moved quickly to approve the donation of land. After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Massacre, the police department began patrolling elementary schools because the school police department didn’t have enough officers.

But education policy in Florida is complicated, bureaucratic and political. The delay in approval of 05C shows that while cities may be able to jawbone on education, they have no power.

Delray CRA on the brink of a blunder

Acting as the community redevelopment agency, the Delray Beach City Commission almost certainly will do something tonight that makes no apparent sense.

Barring something unexpected, the commission/CRA will sell the largest remaining parcel of city-owned land at a discount of more than 90 percent to a company whose first attempt to develop the site failed. If that happens, the city will ignore potentially much better offers.

That company is Uptown Atlantic. The name was Equity Delray in 2013 when the CRA voted to sell it those three-plus acres east of the Fairfield Inn. We had heard nothing from Uptown/Equity until after the March election. Then CEO John Flynn sent the city a letter asking for another chance. Consider what has happened since.

At its first meeting, the new commission abolished the independent CRA, which had been about to issue a Request for Proposal on those three acres. Basically, the CRA was ready to start over and seek new bidders.

The new commission, though, expressed interest in negotiating a new purchase deal with Uptown/Equity. Then the commission added two members to the CRA. Both of them also showed support for Uptown/Equity.

At Monday’s CRA workshop, some of the companies that want to bid on the property spoke. It was clear, though, that Mayor Shelly Petrolia, commissioners Adam Frankel and Shirley Johnson and board member Angeleta Gray had made up their minds. Petrolia cut off one company representative as he began to speak.

Interestingly, no one tried to argue that Uptown/Equity has proposed a great project. “I don’t know,” Gray said, in response to Commissioner Ryan Boylston’s question about whether there are better options. The company’s backers stuck to their claim that because Uptown/Equity has pending approvals, it could build something faster.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia, who is leading the charge for Uptown/Equity, looked especially inconsistent.

When Petrolia ran for the commission in 2013, she emphasized the commission’s failure to seek competitive bidding on the trash-hauling contract. Defenders said the extension was a good deal. Petrolia responded that they couldn’t know without asking. Yet she seemed prepared not to ask if there were better deals on that key parcel.

In addition, Petrolia regularly complained about the price iPic paid for the downtown land on which the company is building Offices 4th and 5th Delray. The price was $3.6 million for the roughly 1.5 acres that had been home to the chamber of commerce and library.

On Monday, Petrolia defended herself by saying that she would expect a discounted price for land on West Atlantic Avenue compared to East Atlantic. But a 93 percent discount? Also, that $3.6 million actually was $700,000 above the appraised value.

Something is going on. Uptown-Equity has the inside track for reasons that numbers don’t explain. That would suggest politics. We’ll see what happens tonight.

Canal clearing reprieve

Southwest Boca Raton residents have won a temporary reprieve from the Lake Worth Drainage District.

After meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, the district agreed to delay until November work to clear the banks of the L-48, L-49 and L-50s canals. The affected neighborhoods are Palmetto Park Terrace, Boca Square and Palm Beach Farms, all south of Palmetto Park Road and generally east of Southwest 12th Avenue.

Residents on Lake Sabal Palm and Lake Martha especially argued that because they aren’t on canals the clearing was unnecessary. Another issue was that the district planned to clear cut banks of vegetation but didn’t announce plans to restore those stretches behind homes. Residents feared the loss of property values.

So now district and city officials will work with residents to see if a modified plan can address the legitimate need to preserve flood control without needlessly tearing up neighborhoods. Mayor Scott Singer and Councilwoman Monica Mayotte, who lives in Palm Beach Farms, have been regular advocates for the residents.

Tri-Rail selects second station site

It didn’t get much attention, and it won’t matter unless other things fall into place, but Tri-Rail has chosen its preferred location for a second station in Boca Raton.

As expected, the site is the former home of Kings Market on Military Trail north of Boca Center. Crocker Partners owns the site. At one time, it appeared that Crocker would donate the site as part of plans to redevelop the Midtown neighborhood.

But the city council stalled, and Crocker sued. If things get resolved, Crocker still might feel generous. Until then, however, plans for the station will wait. Tri-Rail has money to build the station but not to buy the land.

Congress Ave. plans canceled

Delray Beach is preparing to cancel plans to narrow Congress Avenue. The city once envisioned the project as a way to redevelop the corridor by slowing traffic, as the city did with Federal Highway north and south of downtown. But a recent vote means the commission is preparing to drop its request for money. Congress Avenue had been a priority of former City Commissioner Jim Chard, who lost to Petrolia in the March mayoral election.