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Inside the battle over Jacksonville’s shuttered schools

Claire Heddles
Neighbor Kim Stephens-Perry stands in front of a mural at Lake Forest Elementary School, which shut down in 2019 for underperformance. The site is now slated for demolition and redevelopment as an affordable housing complex.

The only kids at the shuttered Lake Forest Elementary School now are the ones painted in the portraits on the school's red brick walls. But those too will be gone soon, under a plan to tear down the building and replace it with an affordable housing complex.

Neighbors say that the project is being forced on them without their consent and that they weren't included in the decision until after the School Board had signed off on an agreement to sell the building. City Council is set to vote Tuesday on the plan for Lake Forest.

The battle over the future of the abandoned elementary school on Jacksonville’s Northside is likely to play out again, across the city, as the district carries out its master plan to demolish 44 schools and build 28 new ones. The changes are part of a $2 billion facilities plan for funds from the half-cent sales tax increase Duval voters approved last year. The district currently has about 200 schools.

After all is said and done, about 15 school sites will be sold off to new buyers, but — like the Lake Forest project — there’s no easy answer for what to do with those abandoned spaces.

Neighbors want a say

The majority-Black neighborhood of Lake Forest is a mix of single-family homes, small apartments and duplexes. Kim Stephens-Perry lives in the area and has been holding out hope the former school would be converted into an educational space again one day, after the district shut the school down two years ago for underperformance.

“We have some baby boomers, some Gen X, millennials, you name it. This is a very diverse neighborhood,” Stephens-Perry said. “It's imperative that we retain educational tools in our community.”

The closest playground in the area is across the main artery, Edgewood Avenue. A middle schooler named Temani lives near the former school and said she wishes the abandoned site could be turned into a playground or sports center.

“We've really got nowhere to play, and our parents don't want us walking across the main street to the other park,” Temani said. “We need to have somewhere local and close for them to just pop their head outside and look at us.”

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Anne Sisson-Mussel has lived on the same street behind Lake Forest Elementary School her entire life, and said she would like to see a community center in the neighborhood.

The district’s original plan was to turn the site into a preschool, but a nonprofit organization set to run an early learning site backed out due to the $11 million cost of repairing the building, according to Duval Schools' assistant superintendent of operations, Paul Soares.

“Quite honestly, they just backed away from it and said we don't want to pursue this anymore,” Soares said. “When they retracted, we really didn't have an entity to operate it.”

So, the district started down the regular process for abandoned school buildings: report it to the state and see if any charter schools are interested. With no bites from charter schools, the property would have gone to a competitive bidding process.

But at Lake Forest, the nonprofit affordable housing developer Ability Housing stepped in before that could happen. The School Board agreed to sell Ability Housing the publicly owned property for a million dollars, pending the city's approval to rezone the land.

The developer plans to set aside 25% of the housing for Duval County Public School employees as part of its agreement with the district.

After four City Council and committee meetings, where neighbors opposed adding affordable housing in their neighborhood, Ability Housing made additional agreements to build an early learning center on site and set aside a portion of people’s rent to go toward home ownership. Ability Housing also held community meetings to talk through plans and try to garner support.

Anne Sisson-Muesel is among a chorus of neighbors who have opposed the project in recent months. She’s lived on the same street, one block from the former school, her entire life. She said she loves the neighborhood.

“Turn it into something that's beneficial to the people already in this area — a senior center, a playground for the children,” Sisson-Muesel said. “Children seem to be locked out a lot here in this situation”

Developer heralds benefits

Ability Housing is pretty well-respected by city officials, with about a dozen developments in the area. President and CEO Shannon Nazworth said they picked the Lake Forest property for its next project because of its proximity to transportation and jobs.

“It's right off I-95, so people can easily get to UF Health. Amazon's not super far. The port’s not super far,” Nazworth said. “There are places where people can get good jobs, and it wouldn't be hard for them to commute.”

The proposed development would have 180 units, with 80% of the apartments allocated to people who make less than $32,820. The district said the housing for school employees was a key part of what made them jump on the opportunity to sell the land to Ability Housing.

“Being able to show initiatives like access to affordable housing will be a jewel in our crown when recruiting future employees,” Tracy Pierce, head of marketing for Duval Schools, said in a statement. “When we revealed our plan to close and consolidate schools, we promised the community that we would not abandon buildings to become blight.”

With soaring real estate prices right now, Nazworth said it's rare to find a landowner who will wait through the long process of acquiring federal grants to fund affordable housing development.

“It just is a really a solid win-win for everybody,” Nazworth said

Claire Heddles
Ability Housing president and CEO Shannon Nazworth said the proposed development in Lake Forest would be a similar, garden style complex like their newest development, Village at Hyde Park.

Of the organization’s 12 developments, Nazworth said Ability Housing has faced strong community opposition like in Lake Forest only once before, and that project failed. If the City Council endorses the Lake Forest project Tuesday, it would be the first without neighborhood support, according to Nazworth.

Jacksonville’s Land Use and Zoning Committee approved the proposal in a 5-2 vote Tuesday, but it’s not official until the full council signs off on it. If council doesn’t approve it and Ability Housing can’t purchase the publicly owned land, the district would start the formal bidding process to sell the property to someone else.

That process never happened because Ability Housing’s plan seemed like the best option, according to Soares, the district's head of operations.

“The [invitation to bid] process doesn’t guarantee that somebody is going to come along and repurpose it in a meaningful way,” Soares said.

Soares said the bidding process could lead to a school just sitting around empty for years on end, and with Ability Housing’s offer, the district doesn’t have to spend $750,000 to demolish the building before selling the land.

The story could repeat itself

But representatives for neighborhood coalitions in the Lake Forest neighborhood said even with Ability Housing’s commitment to build an early learning center, and the pathways toward home ownership, they still oppose the project and want a competitive bidding process.

Tyrona Clark-Murray, vice chair of the Northwest Citizen Planning Advisory Committee, said she sees this as a solution coming from the outside in, rather than coming from the community itself.

“Once again, we have this stigma that the Northside is where we need to put more affordable housing,” Tyrona Clark-Murray, vice chair of the Northwest Citizen Planning Advisory Committee, said. “I think this whole process would have gone a lot better … if Duval County Public Schools would have consulted with the residents.”

Most officials agree now that it was a mistake to draft a contract with Ability Housing before getting community input. Council member Reggie Gaffney voted against the project during a Land Use and Zoning Committee meeting, saying he had to side with the community members' requests.

“I think lesson learned,” Gaffney said. “We've got to get ahead of this on the front end because when the community finds out about something on the back end, often that happens, then there’s so much uncertainty.”

City Council’s liaison to the School Board, Brenda Priestly Jackson, has echoed the need for a proactive approach to school closures to avoid community backlash.

“We're going to see a series of concerns like this because of the planned school closures,” Priestly Jackson told her colleagues on council.

The school has made it a top priority to include funds for demolishing the rest of the schools it shuts down in the coming years, to avoid a building going to ruin at the hands of a negligent buyer. The funding plan includes money to demolish 44 school buildings and rebuild 28, and to sell the rest of the land.

Soares says the district is changing course from that plan only when another good option presents itself, like what he says happened at Lake Forest.

The mock-up of the proposed housing complex in Lake Forest. Jacksonville City Council is set to vote on rezoning the land to approve sale to Ability Housing on Tuesday.

But he said if he’s learned anything from the battle over what to do at Lake Forest, it is to get the neighbors involved up front.

“I think one thing we're going to do is try to insert a more public community element in the future as we go forward,” Soares said.

Back in Lake Forest, neighbors say they’re glad their pushback is resulting in an early learning center in the proposal after all. Tyrona Clark-Murray said she hopes Lake Forest could push officials to seek community input sooner on other developments.

“Maybe those concessions could have been made earlier,” Clark-Murray said, after expressing disappointment at the city’s Zoning Committee approving the proposal. “I think the government should listen, and they should vote with the people.”

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.