Parkland massacre accelerates talk of secondary access road, and additional fencing on FCS campus

Last week’s massacre at a high school in Parkland, in which 17 individuals were gunned down by a former student, has led to an acceleration of plans here at home to better secure the campus of the Franklin County School, and to make access more flexible in the event of an emergency.

At Tuesday’s regular monthly meeting, school board members reviewed a preliminary proposal to reinforce the interior fencing around the campus in Eastpoint, and to add additional gating that would limit access of vehicles to areas beyond the parking lot in front of the administrative building.

The school board is also looking to move forward on a long-standing proposal to add a secondary access road behind the school that would enable buses to enter and exit the campus from Tate’s Hell State Forest behind the school. Currently, the only access to the school complex is one entrance, directly off of U.S. 98.

In his report Monday evening, School Board Member Carl Whaley told colleagues he had spoken with John Brown and Ken Weber, with the Florida Forest Service, about a proposal to shore up the dump road behind the campus so as to make it usable, on a limited basis, for school buses to travel to and from State Road 65.

“You hate to follow on a tragic situation but now’s the time,” he said. “We need to move.”

On Tuesday morning, Whaley secured a letter of support from county commissioners to back the plan for a secondary road, but they stopped short of offering to fund the road.

“I do believe this board will support you and give you a letter of support, but we don’t have a whole lot of equipment to build roads,” said Chairman Smokey Parrish.

In his report to the commissioners, Whaley said plans have been in the works for the road ever since the school opened a decade ago, but funding has not been there.

“We have one way in, one way out,” he said. “If we have any type of active shooter event, any threat on our school campus, emergency services have one way to provide service. We definitely want to be able to have things in place to help us if any situation happened here.

“We were actually making moves before the tragedy in Parkland,” Whaley said. “When things happen, the need is really shown then.”

Whaley said that together with the Florida Forest Service, they have been looking at the entire forest area behind the school to find a suitable route to a 26-acre parcel the district owns north of the county jail. “We would use that as a reunification point,” he said.

He said because much of that area is low-lying and swampy, it would be costly to put a road in, and so they are considering shoring up what is known as the “dump road” to wind a path towards SR 65.

“It used to be pretty bad but it has been worked by the Florida Forest Service, with culverts put in where washouts were,” Whaley said, noting that it would be unwise to transport students past the landfill, where methane and other contaminants may be found,

“This is the best solution, to cut through the forest on the back road,” he said.

He said the district also has spoken with the homeowners association at Gramercy Plantation about a possible more direct route through the northern portion of the housing development, a move that would cut down on the length of road needed to be built.

Whaley said that in addition to a letter of support, the district was seeking help with putting in lime rock to make the road completely passable. “We would buy it, we just don’t have a way of hauling or spreading of lime rock,” he said.

He said the road would help as a fire buffer for all the homes in the adjacent Gramercy Plantation, as well as for the landfill, sheriff’s office complex and the humane society.

Chairman Smokey Parrish said that because the county lacked a bulldozer, and its road construction money was tapped out, it could not be of direct assistance in putting in the road.

He suggested that the school board look into a legislative appropriation that would fund a more substantial thoroughfare. “You actually need a good road going in there, so buses can pass,” Parrish said. “There’s some engineering that needs to be done, for a 60-foot right-of-way, and swales and stormwater retention.

“It needs to be done right for buses, or it’s going to continuously be a messed-up road,” he said.

Whaley said the road has been cleared to the point where two vehicles can pass safely. “It would not be a full-time run,” he said. “We have sought legislative help to make this happen on the school board level.”

Commissioner Cheryl Sanders suggested the school board contact the legislative delegation, since now is a promising time to secure school safety funds.

“We got to protect those kids, we got to protect those teachers, we got to protect everybody who works out there,” said Commissioner Noah Lockley. “We need to do that and we need to get on that ASAP.”

In a separate move, the commissioners agreed, as part of a larger funding increase, to provide Sheriff A.J. Smith with an additional $67,500 to cover the department’s share of the cost for providing two school resource officers (SRO) at the Franklin County Schools, and one at the Apalachicola Bay Charter School. Allan Ham and Brock Johnson serve as the SROs at the Franklin County School, while Stella Bryant is the ABC School SRO. Ryan Sandoval oversees the program, and fills in when needed.


Additional fencing proposed


At Monday’s meeting, school board members reviewed a preliminary set of bids for providing additional fencing that curtail the free traffic of vehicles once they have entered the school campus.

Visitors could enter the campus and park in the lot in front of the administration building, but would not have access beyond that unless the gates were open, for games, programs and other public events.

Bud Strange, coordinator of facilities, maintenance and transportation, provided a series of preliminary estimates, totaling in the neighborhood of $125,000 to $150,000, for six-foot tall fencing, and double gates, that would close off the other parking areas, and which could be opened remotely. Included in that estimate would be repair to the existing wrought iron fencing that encloses the interior of the campus.

Shannon Venable, the district’s director of finance, said the cost could be covered by the district’s five-year capital outlay budget of about $330,000.

The school board plans to consider the proposal in more detail in the weeks ahead. In voicing preliminary support for the measure, School Board Chair Stacy Kirvin reminded his colleagues that cost is a factor within the comparatively tight budget.

“Every dollar we spend affects our general revenue,” he said. “We have to think about that it’s taking money out of the classroom.”

Superintendent Traci Moses is hosting a meeting Monday of local law enforcement officials, emergency medical services personnel and school administrators to further discuss school safety planning.