Walton, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa school districts face spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to build new high schools or update old ones to accommodate growth in student populations. The high pricetag comes during a period of tight education budgets.

In the past five years as South Walton High School principal, Alexis Tibbetts said enrollment there doubled.

In January, the Walton County school system finished an 11-classroom addition to the Santa Rosa Beach school opened in 2002. South Walton plans to add two portables this summer to handle an influx of even more students.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth,” said Tibbets, who estimated enrolling another 167 students to push the high school to the 1,000 mark. “We’ve had unprecedented growth in Walton County.”

Walton, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa school districts face spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to build new high schools or update old ones to accommodate growth in student populations. The high pricetag comes during a period of tight education budgets.

For example, Navarre High School opened in 1997 in south Santa Rosa County. The newest high school in the school system also has the most students at 2,320 with two more portables added this summer to bring its total to four.

Santa Rosa School District officials projected it must build one high school in both the south and central parts of the county in the next five years. Enrollment at its six high schools jumped from 6,932 in 2012-2013 to 8,072 in 2018-2019, or a 14 percent increase. It has already embarked on new K-8 schools in both areas.

In April the Santa Rosa county commissioners made it clear the School District would have to go back to the drawing board to raise revenue. District leaders wanted the county leaders to allow a vote on an  impact fee – a one-time payment by residents who buy newly built homes.

“We need a new revenue stream to accommodate additional growth,” Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said. “Growth is outpacing our ability to build schools in a timely manner with the resources we have.”

Meanwhile, the Walton County school system has managed to build two new high schools at more than $35 million each. Walton High School in DeFuniak Springs was built in 2010 to replace the old, deteriorating high school and because of growing enrollment. The front of the new school looks like the original Walton High School built almost 100 years ago.

The key has been planning ahead to add schools where populations are booming in the county, said William “Bill” Eddins Jr., Walton County’s school Board chairman. For instance, it has 30 acres of land to build a school near the fast-growing Hammock Bay community in Freeport.

“It’s crazy,” Eddins said. “No one expected this kind of growth. We’re trying to keep up or stay ahead.”

Okaloosa’s six aging high schools just need upkeep with very little growth forecast. The current average age is 52.5 years. Its oldest is Choctawhatchee High School at 67, opening in Fort Walton Beach in 1952.

Niceville High School, which opened in 1964, has the highest enrollment with 2,142 students, followed closely by Crestview High School. Opened in 1969, it boasts 2,075 students.

Okaloosa County School Board member Tim Bryant said Crestview can handle an additional 300 students and sees the school's enrollment climbing. That falls short, however, of the county needing to build a new high school, he said.

“I think we could see continued growth, perhaps by 200 students over the next five years," Bryant said. “Enrollment growth is manageable within our current high schools."

Okaloosa County School District Superintendent Marcus Chambers admits the schools need constant repairs.

“Our high schools were built over 40 years ago – with some additions and renovations from time to time,” Chambers said. “Our capital needs are significant and include improving security on all campuses, in addition to maintaining all of our facilities.”
 
However, high school enrollments have remained steady all the way back to 2006 and appear to remain that way in the near future. Chambers pointed out Fort Walton Beach as an example. Opened in 1969, the number of students increased for the fourth year in a row to 1,841, returning to 2010 levels. That's still far below the 2,032, who attended the high school in 2006.

“Over the last three years, Niceville and Crestview have grown at about the same rate – averaging 2% per year,” Chambers said. “Fort Walton Beach High School enrollment is just now getting back to where it was five years ago and is still well below where it was from 2006 to 2010. Choctaw has been consistent for the last five to six years.”