FORT WALTON BEACH — Okaloosa County students go back to school next week, but the district's administrative complex will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future.
It’s possible, maybe even likely, the doors of the 82-year-old school district headquarters on Lowery Place have been closed for good.
The building, which opened in 1935 as Fort Walton School, was closed in late March after a series of environmental hazards made it uninhabitable.
Squirrel and raccoon infestations, mold, sewage backups and the scourge of blow flies were all identified by Superintendent of Schools Mary Beth Jackson as contributing to the decision to evacuate.
Conditions in the building had deteriorated to such an extent that Jackson said she now dreads the thought of putting her staff back inside.
“I don’t know what is going to transpire, but I can’t in good conscience put the employees back in there,” she said. “I won’t put them back in there.”
Although two side buildings are still used, the main building sits unoccupied and continues to cost the district money, according to School Board Chairman Lamar White.
Engineers have been hired and are assessing the structure to see if it can be saved. A report is due to the School Board late this month, district spokesman Henry Kelley said.
“Jacobs Engineering is going through the process of going through the building to tell us what it’s going to cost to bring it up to standards,” Kelley said.
After the initial assessment is in, Kelley said board members will have to decide if repairs are worth the cost, or whether the district should consider either finding a new building to house its administrative personnel or constructing one of its own.
Consideration of what to do with the Lowery Place building and how to replace it if it is permanently abandoned has been on hold while the school district faces “the budget mess the Legislature handed us,” Jackson said.
Florida lawmakers passed a budget this year that leaves the school district with $7.6 million less than it had last year, Jackson said. She said it appears the task has been accomplished without costing jobs or forcing the district to contemplate a tax increase.
But it also left the school system with no funding to spend on a project that Jackson and White said they favor: renovating an old Kmart building the district owns in Niceville to house all school district staff.
“We have the space there to build offices in a building we currently own, but the problem is we don’t have the money to build offices in that building we currently own,” Jackson said.
The School Board will have to vote on a recommendation from Jackson before it can consider and vote for or against renovation efforts.
White said the Kmart renovation would put everyone in the school district under one roof in an office centrally located, and he expects Jackson to come to him and his fellow board members with a recommendation that is “something along those lines.”
Jackson acknowledged she is trying to find the money — anywhere but in taxpayer pockets — to make a Kmart renovation work.
While alternatives, including selling the Lowery Place building, are being weighed, the former occupants of the old administration building have taken up quarters in school district buildings all over the county, Kelley said.
“We made room. They’re squeezed in,” Kelley said. “We are scattered in four locations."
For now, the district’s Human Resources Department is operating out of Okaloosa Technical College on Lewis Turner Boulevard, Kelley said. Buses that serve south county schools are also housed at OTC.
The district’s Finance and Community Affairs divisions are operating out of a still functional building at 120 Lowery Place, Kelley said.
Curriculum and Instruction functions are presently being conducted from the Niceville Curriculum Center, according to Kelley. Buses that serve central Okaloosa County also operate from there. School Board meetings are also being held at the Curriculum Center and the School Board secretary keeps an office there.
Facilities, Information Technology and Operations functions have been temporarily relocated to the Carver Hill complex in Crestview, he said. The north end buses also are stationed there.