Flagler School District Will Negotiate Lease of Old Courthouse With the County, Eying Room for Historical Society

The old county courthouse may soon get its third tenant in its century history. (© FlaglerLive)
The old county courthouse may soon get its third tenant in its century history. (© FlaglerLive)

The Flagler County school district’s plan to lease the old courthouse in Bunnell to shift half a dozen programs there would cost $632,000 in up-front renovations and $202,000 a year in rent and utilities, according to a plan submitted to the School Board Tuesday. The lease would likely be for 10 years. The School Board is reluctant to buy the building, though “all options are on the table,” Dave Freeman, the district’s operations director, said.

The district wants to lease the courthouse to free up 10 classrooms in existing schools by shifting several specialized programs there–Rise Up, the alternative school now using space at Flagler Palm Coast High School, the iFlagler administration for the district’s virtual school, some federal and job programs, Step Up, a program for adults with disabilities, and storage for the Education Foundation, the district’s non-profit arm. The programs would all shift to the courthouse between September 2024 and January 2025.

The Flagler County Historical Society had plans of its own for the old courthouse, plans that were under way when the district’s announcement that it wanted to lease the building upended the society’s momentum. The society recalibrated down to a proposal to use just seven rooms on the first floor portion of the old courthouse as museum and storage space.

The society’s president, Ed Siarkowicz, and James Fiske, a society board members, presented the plan to the board on Tuesday, to great enthusiasm from Board members Colleen Conklin and Cheryl Massaro. Will Furry, the board chair, was more tepid, and Superintendent LaShakia Moore was cautious.

The School Board on Tuesday directed the superintendent to start negotiating both with county government, which owns the building, on a lease, and with the historical society on possible inclusion in the district’s takeover of the building.

“I’m thrilled that we’re going to be utilizing it because it is a historical building, it’s got so much history, just as the school district utilizing it, and making sure it’s maintained by a county entity,” Conklin said. “I cannot imagine that we can’t carve out some space to be, again, a good community partner.” She sees it as part of the district’s educational mission. She also thinks the district upended the society’s plans by popping into the discussions about using the courthouse while the society had already been doing that with the county. “So I kind of feel a little, not that we are responsible to have a partnership, but I think in being good partners, that is the responsible thing to do.”

“I think it’s a bit ambitious at this moment, personally, based on some of the other information I’ve already seen,” Furry said, “but we have to find a balance out of the gate,” with some of the society’s ideas perhaps phased in over time. “Maybe we can even provide some of the vault space to store some of their historical documents for protection and also maybe free up space within the buildings they have right now across the street as part of the conversation, because I’m looking at this plan here, and I’m not seeing a lot of extra space based on what you presented.”

The old courthouse currently has 11 classrooms, six offices, a large conference room and bathrooms on the first floor alone. The district would reconfigure that into seven classrooms and seven offices, preserving the conference room and adding a cafe. The second floor would be reconfigured into pretty much a mirror of the first, without the cafe. The third floor would have four classrooms and eight offices.

The district’s plan as currently configured makes no room for the Historical Society.

The society operates out of the Holden House across the street from the old courthouse, where it’s been since its emergence in 1983, maintaining the largest archive in the county. The society and county government have a memorandum of understanding to keep that archiving going. Most of the funding is through grants, including from the county’s Tourist Development Council, memberships and private donations.

When the society learned that the Baptist school was leaving the courthouse, County Commissioner Leann Pennington asked society members to draft a proposal on what the society could do with the building’s 50,000 square feet. Society members explored Polk County’s restored courthouse, where a partnership with that county’s school district is in effect. Polk is partly the model for the society’s proposal, with ideas from the Lake County Courthouse Museum and other sources.

As the society was writing the plan, the school district announced its plans to possibly take over the building. “We were a little bit dismayed,” Siarkowicz said, since that could have meant sidelining the society. But the society repositioned its plan–from one looking at the entire building, to one looking at seven rooms at the front end of the old courthouse. One of those rooms is the massive, secure vault that used to house the county’s most precious documents in the Clerk of Court’s custody.

“We’ve written up a list of potential exhibits that could go over there that will continue augmenting our relationship with Flagler County,” Siarkowicz said, “and then also supporting what the school board’s position is, which is educating Flagler County students.” (See the Historical Society’s plan here.)

These include a timeline of the county’s history, a history of the old courthouse, a history of Bunnell and the county’s incorporation as a county in 1917, exhibits on agriculture, county schools, veterans, genealogy and women’s suffrage, the latter possibly a prelude to a separate museum themed around women’s voting rights. But if potentially, we would be sharing floor space, we would love to sit down and have conversations with each of you about how that might work. “If potentially we would be sharing floor space, we would love to sit down and have conversations with each of you about how that might work,” Siarkowicz. The society has long provided school students an opportunity for community service hours.

As for security, access to the seven rooms would be restricted. “We certainly don’t foresee what we plan on putting in those rooms as being an open door policy where the public can just walk in and out. I don’t think that’s a great idea at all,” Siarkowicz said.

Even so, Freeman, the district’s operations director, said, segregating those seven rooms would still reduce the building’s entry and exit points for district uses to a single point. “My concern is with security for the programs that we’re going to be putting in there,” Freeman said. The county and the school district have already talked about engineering the entrance for security and access.

“I’m not as worried about that, because I think there’s solutions to that and our schools have people coming in and out of them all the time,” Board member Colleen Conklin said. “So I think it’s a matter of just being creative and coming up with a solution.” She said it won’t be like a school, but more like a hub of multiple programs. Board member Cheryl Massaro was part of the trip to Polk County. She is fully supportive of the seven-room plan.

Before everyone’s dreams and ideals got the better of them, Moore brought the discussion back to earth by reasserting the district’s priority: “First and foremost, we have to look at what is the space, why did we begin this conversation,” she said, “and then within that, how can we be partners with the Historical Society in whatever way that we can be–while also making sure that we maintain the things that we need to maintain for it to be a site where our students are going to be.”

Moore wanted all decisions held off “until we sit down really as staff on the operational side to really look at a proposal that we could live with and really be able to bring out what are the pros and cons of that partnership,” Moore said, “so that you as a board can have something to confirm truly consider. So I think that a conversation is definitely needed between us and the Historical Society so that we can gauge a plan for what it could look like.”

Moore also added a caveat to Conklin’s sense of responsibility to the historical society, saying the district had no idea the society was in talks with the county when the district got interested in the building. “So I don’t want you guys to feel like the big bad school district is coming in and jumping ahead because they can pay them to rent the buildings. I want that to be just known,” Moore said. “The conversations have not been official or sitting down in any level of negotiation, but they are prepared to do that, when we are prepared to sit down and have those conversations.”

Shifting the various district programs to the old courthouse would allow the district to remove some of its older portables on some campuses.

In-person board members included only Massaro, Furry and Conklin. Christy Chong was absent. Sally Hunt, who has mostly checked out of the district, participated by phone from an undisclosed location (she bought a house in Georgia), as she has for most recent workshops. The board attorney attended by video.

To the society, a partnership would dovetail with the district’s mission. “All of us in the Historical Society,” Siarkowicz said, “are focused on telling the life stories, the survival skills of the people that made it here, and turning that into educational experiences for children, and their parents and their families so that they can frame their vision of their present and their future. That’s our whole goal with the educational process of historical society.

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