Ponder supports plan for Destin to get a high school

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“Destin has never had a high school, and incoming ninth-graders have to leave their hometown to attend school. This school will benefit kids and future generations.”

ABRAHAM GALVAN @destinlogabe

DESTIN — After years of discussions, a plan is in place for Destin to get its own high school.

Representatives from the Destin Chamber of Commerce and the Okaloosa County School District announced a plan Friday they hope will lead to a Destin high school. The two organizations have proposed a half-cent sales tax to benefit the school district and help fund the new high school.

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“Destin has never had a high school, and incoming ninth-graders have to leave their hometown to attend school,” said former Destin mayor and state Rep. Mel Ponder. “This school will benefit kids and future generations.”

If the Okaloosa County Commission approves a referendum, ballots would be mailed to voters next spring.

Discussions about Destin getting its own high school have been going on for decades, but picked up after Destin Middle School opened in 1997. During the 2015-16 school year, there were 614 high school-aged students in Destin. More than 400 of them went to Fort Walton Beach High School.

Among the reasons given in the past against Destin having its own high school have been the cost of building a new school, the population being too small and the impact it would have on other high schools if the Destin students left.

The new idea is to revamp Destin Middle School by adding two wings. If the tax referendum passes, school improvements would begin in 2019.

“Fifth-graders will go back to Destin Elementary and Destin Middle will hold grades sixth to 12,” schools district spokesman Henry Kelley said.

Kelley said if Destin doesn’t get its own school, it will become more difficult to bus students to schools in Niceville and Fort Walton Beach.

“We also want to provide a unique program to Destin high school that will help impact and be part of the community,” he said. “We might have to change the name of the school.”

Destin Chamber of Commerce President Shane Moody said along with the school district, the chamber will try to finalize the opening of a Destin high school within the next three years.

“It’s more than just the high school in Destin, this half-cent sales tax will benefit all of the schools in Okaloosa County,” Moody said. “This type of development is important to improve our already great school system.”

Moody said the sales tax is projected to raise $15 million for the school district the first year. The length of the sales tax has not been determined yet. Moody said the School Board will determine whether the tax sunsets in five years or 10 years.

In addition to raising money for a Destin high school, the revenue will be used to make improvements to Destin Elementary School and other schools in the county.

Kelley said if the sales tax referendum is voted down in May, they will have to go back to square one.

“We have about $240 million in capital improvements for our schools in Okaloosa County,” he said. “We have significant needs for our schools.”

Kelley said 15 out of 18 schools are at full capacity and the student population continues to grow.

“Without this sales tax referendum, we will continue to put Band-Aids on the same issues,” he said. “This is the path in getting a new public-funded high school.”

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