Newberry addresses growth, school capacity

Newberry city staff predicts that about 1,742 new students will join city’s three schools over the next 20 years.

In a presentation at the Newberry Commission regular meeting on Tuesday night, Director of Planning and Economic Development Bryan Thomas mapped out current and future residential developments that will increase the population of Newberry overall and affect capacity at Newberry Elementary School, Oak View Middle School and Newberry High School (NHS).

Thomas broke down his presentation into residential developments that are already under construction, entitled but not actively in development, at the application for land use stage, and new developments under review that have not been approved yet.

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There are 10 projects currently under construction, Thomas reported. He summarized them as creating an additional 3,545 single-family units and 1,350 multi-family units, which translates to a projected 1,195 new students.

Developments in the “land use only” category include two projects that Thomas said would take about 10 years to complete. They account for 335 single-family units that will add about 94 students to local schools.

Three proposed projects currently under review will result in 1,480 single-family units and 260 multi-family units that will increase student populations by an estimated 453 students.

The largest student population increase is projected to be 895 at the elementary level, followed by 477 new students for the high school and 370 for the middle school.

Thomas also offered a look at what the annual average increase in new students would be for each school per year over the next 20 years. Newberry Elementary would add 45 students per year, Oak View would add 18 per year and NHS would increase its population by 87 students per year.

The Newberry Commission added the topic of growth its meeting agenda after the community learned of an application for a planned development along Newberry Road. The proposal for 1,000 new homes sparked robust community discussion about the future of Newberry.

Mayor Jordan Marlowe took to his Facebook page—which almost 6,000 people follow—to explain how growth works in the Urban Services Area (USA) of Newberry. The USA is an area the commission designated for residential and commercial development.

Marlowe explained in the meeting that owners of property in the USA have a right to rezone and build if they follow the city’s standards and requirements.

“It’s where applicants have the right to rezone for residential or commercial,” he said.

Marlowe then shifted the focus to who is to blame for overcrowded Newberry schools.

“When you look at the population bases of our three schools, the highest population that is attended by Newberry residents is 60 percent,” Marlowe said, referring to Newberry Elementary. He said that means 40 percent of the students attending NES are from other areas.

“The county ships them in,” Marlowe said.

He estimated only 30 to 40 percent of students attending Oak View live in Newberry and said NHS has a similar ratio. That’s why Newberry schools are overcrowded, he argued. 

“The school board has zoned Archer and Jonesville to come to Newberry,” Marlowe said.

Marlowe then said Jonesville’s growth rate “makes Newberry look stagnant.”

“It used to be a gas station when I was a child, now it’s larger than we are,” he said.

Marlowe said the solution for Newberry schools being over capacity falls on the school board, which should rezone students from Jonesville to the city of Alachua, which he said has capacity.

“With a stroke of a pen SBAC could rezone students to there,” he said. “All three of our schools would immediately go to below capacity.

“Newberry’s growth rate and our school capacity is well, well in line,” he continued. “We are busting at the seams not because of the growth of people joining us in Newberry, but because Jonesville is being shipped to Newberry not to Alachua, an extra five-minute bus ride.”

But Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson disagreed.

“It’s not that easy,” she said about redrawing school zones. “Any rezoning would have an extensive, legally required process we’d have to go through.” 

The process involves establishing a committee, gathering and analyzing data, gathering community input, school board plan approval and timeline establishment.

In the meantime, the ACPS is moving ahead with breaking ground next month on a new 15-classroom building at Oak View.

In 2020, the School Board of Alachua County paid $3.68 million to Drake Land Holdings, LLC for 37 acres of land off NW 143 Street, which is just south of Jonesville Park. The half-cent tax funded the purchase.

Some in the community contested the purchase, including then-Education Task Force (ETF) representative Dr. Carlee Simon. She started a petition to try to have the deal rescinded, saying the property was overpriced since it sold for $1.8 million in December 2018.

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