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Parents and kids plea for fixes at Beachland Elementary

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of June 18, 2015)

Beachland Elementary School parents and students fired a shot across the bow of the county school board last week with a peaceful appearance to demand improvements to the island’s aging and increasingly dilapidated public school.

PTA President Pat Blackburn said students receive a quality education from wonderful teachers at Beachland, and expressed gratitude for all the good things about the school that are a source of pride for Beachland families. “But we are not proud of the physical campus,” she said.

Fourth grader Will Blackburn, the PTA President’s son, told board members:  “My school stinks – literally. My school makes me sick. I have asthma and allergies.”  He described attending a 90-minute meeting last summer in the library, and returning home sick and in need of inhaled medication.

Eva Justice, also a fourth grader, said: “My cafeteria is a gross place to eat and I wish it wasn’t.”

School Board member Shawn Frost was the only person on the dais to address the concerns of the parents and students during the meeting, calling their comments “an eye opener.

“They have every right to be angry,” Frost said. “We’re spending $7 million on an administration building and we’ve got literally Soviet-era conditions at Beachland. My predecessors left the legacy that we’re living with now.”

PTA President Blackburn detailed the moldy carpets, the “blob” of discolored spray insulation on the cafeteria door and the lack of covered walkways between the 57-year-old buildings that leave students soaked to the bone when it rains.

“When it rains at our school, there is no way to stay dry,” fourth-grader Eva Justice said.  “The flooding is ridiculous, we have to get our shoes and socks wet just to get somewhere.”

Beachland mom Jennifer Nye said she was saddened at how the school has gone downhill. “Beachland used to be the pride of the beach community. I moved here nine years ago and everyone had wonderful things to say about Beachland,” she said. “But over the past four years, there’s been a hemorrhage of wonderful families leaving.”

Some have opted for St. Edward’s School or St. Helen Catholic School, while others have charter schools that have Indian River County ripe for an alternative to traditional public schools.

Tiffany Justice told the School Board members she would be very disappointed if they took money that could be used for improvements at Beachland and gave it to charter schools for their own building needs, signaling a growing rift between the county’s district-run public schools and charters.

School Board member Claudia Jimenez, who represents much of the geographic area where Beachland students live, posted a comment to her professional Facebook page the day after the School Board meeting that acknowledged this struggle for resources.

“Kudos to Beachland parents and students who spoke up for their school, and the importance of prioritizing district capital outlay dollars. We should be lobbying together to pressure the state to fund ALL public schools adequately instead of pitting different interests against each other. We want ALL children to learn in safe and well maintained facilities.”

School Board member Frost, who promised to follow  up with staff to make sure planned improvements stayed on track, later said the upside-down priorities of the School Board were the spark that made him run for office in the first place.

Frost said he was pleased that the School Board had approved $146,000 for grading and drainage work at Beachland to help alleviate some of the flooding, and he hoped the problems with a lack of cover when it rains could be handled in this year’s budget as well.  He also expressed hope that plans for a new cafeteria for Beachland, which is supposed to be in the budget for 2016, would move forward.

But not having money to keep the school habitable while building a new $7 million headquarters for administrators, and a $1.5 million car wash that doesn’t even have the capacity to wash school buses, is inexcusable, Frost said.

“My whole campaign was about smarter school spending, and part of that is making sure students are in a safe, comfortable living environment,” he added.

He said the proposed construction plan for Beachland should be in the backup packet for the June 23 business meeting, and that plan should provide for removal of old carpeting and replacing it with tile, which he says will be a big, positive step.

Frost said he’s also spoken to a member of the Beachland staff who works in the computer lab, who is trying to at least give the room a good cleaning and a fresh coat of paint. “They’re rallying the community,” Frost said.