Story and photo by STACY MARTIN
On April 20, just before the regular school board meeting, Walton County School Board (WCSB) members held a public workshop for feedback regarding Freeport’s growth and development; the workshop was held at the South Walton High School. In attendance were Superintendent Russell Hughes, board chair Jason Catalano, and board members William “Bill” Eddins, Kim Kirby, Jeri Michie, and Tammy Smith.
The meeting began with Director of Facilities Jill Smith addressing the expansion projects and concept designs of Freeport Elementary, Freeport Middle, and Freeport High School. Attention was placed on concept designs for Freeport Elementary school’s additional phases, discussing five concept designs with extra class space and cafeteria-auditorium expansions. According to Smith, the Department of Education (DOE) has to approve the addition of a new building and has not recommended a new elementary school, but did approve the new 11 classroom additions because of moving the fifth graders back into the elementary schools.
Smith said that DOE has conducted a plant survey and approved building a new 802-student station middle school with floor space built for 1,000 for growth. This school was approved for the Hammock Bay area. Smith noted to the board that the DOE has not seen the growth in Freeport, but instead has approved the new middle school based on the current aging middle school building. Smith added that other counties also experiencing growth are going through the same struggles, because DOE is marking growth based on birth, not based on immigration, which is the type of growth seen in these areas.
The 30-acre parcel was donated to the school district in 2013 and located next to the Freeport Regional Sports Complex in the Hammock Bay subdivision. The deed of the property states the land must be used to develop an elementary or middle school, and construction must begin by May 21, 2028. The deed also stipulates that the grantee will not commence construction of another elementary or middle school at any other location in Freeport prior to commencing construction on the 30-acre parcel in Hammock Bay, and under no circumstance can the land be sold.
The only building approved by the DOE is a middle school, said Smith. If the district does not start construction by 2028 or starts constructing a new elementary or middle school on a different parcel of property, the gifted land returns to the owner. Board member Michie asked if there was any possibility that negotiations could be arranged to change the deed. Hughes said that an option would be to go back to the grantor of the property and discuss any possible changes. The board has selected EMI Architects to go forward with the middle school, with a design chosen later this year and the school to be completed and open for the 2024 school year.
Freeport High School currently sits on 80 acres and was built in 2001, accommodating 741 student stations. The DOE survey for the high school included addressing security, roof and stadium repairs, including public restrooms, site drainage, building renovations. The district is currently working on addressing the growth and future school additions expected to be addressed within five years. Some temporary solutions include restroom portals at South Walton High School relocated to Freeport High School athletic space. The current parking area takes up about 30 acres; the athletics, softball, and baseball fields are close to eight acres; practice fields and stadium include 10 acres, and stormwater is 16 acres for a total of 64 acres used of the 80-acre area. Any other school located at this site would eliminate any room for expansion of the high school.
The workshop presentation ran over time and concluded without any time to hear from the public. Anyone who wished to speak could do so during the regular school board meeting.