Marian Buccafurni receives a GEMS award. From left: Superintendent Theresa Axford, Stanley Switlik principal Christine Paul, Buccafurni, MHS principal Wendy McPherson, school board chair John Dick. AMBER ACEVEDO/Monroe County Schools.

Debate over a redevelopment proposal for district property in Key West, as well as updates on strategic planning and standards-based grading, consumed the majority of the April 26 meeting of the Monroe County School Board. 

The meeting’s early workshop session saw discussion of an unsolicited proposal by SPGL LLC – the same company responsible for 42 affordable housing units available to the Monroe County Sheriff on Stock Island and in Key West – for the development of the school district’s 5.9-acre property at 241 Trumbo Rd. and 240 White St. in Key West. Included in the company’s proposal are 76 rental apartments, a new two-story, 20,000-square-foot administrative building, and 1.27 acres of green space. 

Under the initial proposal, SPGL would exclusively design, build, finance and maintain the project under a long-term ground lease.

While school board chair John Dick and vice chair Andy Griffiths were ultimately supportive of moving forward with the initial stages of the proposal process, Griffiths and board members Bobby Highsmith and Dr. Sue Woltanski indicated a desire for a direct meeting with the district’s long-standing housing task force, a clear plan for vacating the district’s current facilities on the property, and input from other proposals before taking significant steps with SPGL’s plan.

“We’ve had a committee running for years now about how we’re going to redevelop, what our needs are, what needs to be going there, and we haven’t had any real feedback or a workshop with that committee,” said Highsmith. “The folks that have spent so much time and energy working on this committee, we owe it to them to hear what they have to say about this and the overall project development.” 

“I’d like to know where our administration is going to go and how we’re going to pay for that before we move forward,” said Woltanski. “I don’t feel like I know the long game of how the pieces are going to fit together financially.”

Superintendent Theresa Axford spoke in favor of moving forward with the proposal process, indicating that she had met with the task force the day before to discuss SPGL’s plan.

“I think what the task force wants more than anything is to put one foot in front of the other, looking at what comes before us and making decisions as we go along,” she said. “They were totally supportive of this conversation with you today. … The task force does feel a sense of urgency about moving forward with this.”

With a split opinion, the board elected to postpone formal consideration of SPGL’s proposal until after an upcoming meeting with the housing task force.

In other news:

  • The later stages of the meeting shifted to a strategic plan update delivered by Elisa Levy. Following concerns from parents that the plan’s development had not allowed room for parental input, Levy cited extensive efforts involved in the data-gathering and input stages. 

Various avenues of input included, but were not limited to: surveys from more than 1,200 parents and teachers; more than 70 focus groups with teachers, staff and district administration; a total of five live and virtual town hall meetings with parents; and two focus groups with Spanish- and Creole-speaking families. 

Levy outlined a plan to accelerate learning for students by focusing on increasing reading proficiency in the third grade, increasing the percentage of students making gains in their English and language arts performance between 3rd and 10th grade, and increasing the high school acceleration rate. 

The plan also details efforts to foster student creativity, self-knowledge, and social and emotional intelligence through partnerships with art, theater, cultural and environmental organizations, as well as specialized curriculum to promote relationship building with teachers and peers.

Parents wishing to provide further input on the strategic plan will be afforded an opportunity to do so at the school board’s May 10 meeting at Coral Shores High School.

  • The board received an update on the district’s eventual move to standards-based grading in grades K-5 from Kelli Brower, coordinator of instructional materials and technology integration. The system forgoes traditional grading in favor of indicating grade-appropriate mastery of pre-determined critical skills.
  • Axford announced the reinstatement of the deputy superintendent role as well as the promotion of Amber Archer Acevedo, coordinator of community relations and professional development, to the new position.
  • In addition to a special award for the athletic and academic performance of state champion weightlifter Rylan Chapa, the district honored Marian Buccafurni, chair of the Middle Keys Future Fund, with a GEMS award for supporting the Dolphin Pride student rewards programs at Stanley Switlik Elementary and Marathon High School.

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.