Lake Gibson Middle School is slated to get a new gymnasium. | Polk County Public Schools

A new elementary school would be completed in south Lakeland by 2029 and at least four other schools and/or additions would be completed by 2031, under a list of construction and renovations announced Tuesday by Polk County Public Schools’ Assistant Superintendent for Facilities Angela Usher.

Several projects are underway, including:

  • A new cafeteria at Medulla Elementary, to be completed in the next year
  • The expansion of the employee clinic in Lakeland
  • Replacing the air-conditioning and windows in the Lake Gibson Senior gymnasium
  • An auditorium for Rochelle School of the Arts

There are also major projects underway at Southwest Middle and Fred G. Garner Elementary schools and plans for a major renovation/modernization of Crystal Lake Elementary.

Four middle school gymnasiums are in the works at:

  • Lake Gibson
  • Lakeland Highlands
  • Bartow
  • Blake Academy

Usher said the total cost for dozens of projects she listed is $916 million, to be paid for with impact fees, the district’s half-cent sales tax, and state and local tax dollars given to build new facilities. The plan is brought to the School Board each year for their approval, but they rely heavily on staff recommendations.

School Board members Lisa Miller and William Allen both questioned whether projects they have sought for several years are underway.

“Back to the gymnasiums, because you know I’ve talked about this for four years now, Lake Gibson. Can they go on at the same time? Or are we building one at a time at this point? Like I was hoping to get Lake Gibson — do we have a projected date because, we have the architect out now, but are we going to do multiple builds on those at the same time?” Miller asked.

Usher said Lake Gibson Middle‘s gym is scheduled to be completed next year.

Allen asked why the renovations/modernizations at Crystal Lake Elementary appeared to have been moved down the list.

“Looking at last year’s capital improvement plan, I did see that you know, the priority scale sort of changes and so I would like you to speak to that,” Allen said. “I see the Crystal Lake bumped down on your list quite a few slots. So, like, what is the rationale? Like, when something changes and you adjust those, you know, do we get some rationale?”

Usher said they look at multiple criteria: age, utilization, adequacy of space, and the percentage of buildings over a certain age, and Crystal Lake did not meet the criteria to be higher on the list. “We did put Crystal Lake there, but when we went back and looked at the condition assessment, to be fair, it was not Crystal Lake. So just be honest,” Usher said.

education coverage

Polk County Public Schools currently teaches 113,000 students at regular public and charter schools. Usher also listed a projected additional enrollment of 12,500 by 2041. That would require six new elementary schools, two and a half middle schools and one and half high schools, for a total of 10 new schools by 2041.

“I want to clarify that this is only in school-district-owned facilities. It does not include private, charter. It does not include home-school,” Usher said. “Our numbers come from the state department (of education). It comes from all of our meetings with the various cities, with their development approvals. And, like, right now we know we have, like, 4,000 to 5,000 units approved. We meet with them we look at their build-out rate. We look at migration, we look at birth rates and cohort survival. And we compare that with different cities and with the state — and we are higher than the state numbers right.”

School Board Chairwoman Sara Beth Wyatt was alarmed, saying 12,500 was much too low.

“I’m really concerned that we’re only thinking it’s going to be 12,500 because I would be willing to bet a lot that it will be more than that,” Wyatt said. “I believe the 6,000 that we were up this year, the majority of those were in our district and in the district-owned schools, so I think we need to be planning for more, would be my biggest concern.”

She told Superintendent Frederick Heid that when he was first hired, they were talking about seeing 150,000 students in the district by 2030.

“So and that number scares me,” she said.

Miller pointed out that state law requires them to build for all the students who are here, not the ones they think might attend their schools versus private or charter schools, which build their own schools.

“I am also a little concerned with the numbers, so I think we should just make sure we keep an eye on that,” Miller said. “History has shown that the kids, a lot of the time, end up back in our schools and so I feel like a lot of the population growth we will be affected by very quickly.”

In addition to major building plans, there was also a lengthy conversation about redistricting on Tuesday. Among the schools for which they are discussing redrawing enrollment lines: Lakeland, George Jenkins, Tenoroc and Lake Gibson high schools.  Mulberry, Fort Meade, and Bartow High schools are also being discussed. A series of meetings for each will be held starting next month. Individual schools are sending out notices for those meetings.

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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