VERO BEACH — Hundreds of oaks, palms and other trees that surround Beachland Elementary School have been marked with red bands – an ominous sign that a number of parents feared might mean that the island’s only public elementary school was about to lose much of its lush foliage in preparation for a possible future expansion.
But not to worry – at least not yet. School district officials said the tags only indicate that a tree has been measured, and its size and location entered on a map, as a preliminary step in planning how the school might be expanded to address a growing overcrowding situation. Decisions on which trees may be removed – if any – would come later.
“Nobody’s coming in with bulldozers and chainsaws,” said Beachland Elementary School Principal Carol Wilson.
“All we’ve done is gather information,” added Susan Olson, Indian River County School District’s director of facilities planning and construction.
While she noted that the Beachland campus has limited space for the expansion, Olson said she is optimistic that it will not be necessary to remove the trees to meet the school’s needs.
“We think we can work around them,” she said.
Any expansion to be done at the school could be a few years out, as it would have to go through the planning and design processes and then be added to the district’s five-year capital improvements plans for budgeting, she said.
One Beachland Elementary School father of three boys brought his concerns about the potential removal of the trees to the Indian River County School Board, asking them to consider the importance of the trees.
“These woods are the last remaining hardwood hammock you have on the island,” Kim Pickering said, adding that you have to drive seven miles north or south to find such habitat.
“We can always build schools,” he said at recent school board meeting. “We can always build roads and parking lots. But you can’t build what’s out there.”
Beachland Principal Wilson, who has completed eight years at the school and starts her ninth this fall, said she understands parents’ and the public’s protective feelings toward the trees that surround the school.
“This campus is unique,” Wilson said, explaining that it boasts 500 species of plants. “We are all about the environment and preserving certain species. We certainly don’t want to see this changed.”
Built in 1954, Beachland has seen its share of growth over the decades.
In recent years, that growth has been small but steady. However, last year, the school experienced an unanticipated spike in student population – pushing the school over its capacity.
Last fall, 50 new students enrolled at the elementary school, several coming from St. Edward’s Lower School as a result of the private school’s uncertain future and concern over a merging its lower and upper campuses.
“St. Ed’s does play into that a little bit,” Wilson said.
Other factors have included a decrease in real estate prices on the island, allowing some mainland families the opportunity to buy homes on the island and send their children to Beachland, which is rated A+ under Florida’s grading system.
While Beachland Elementary does serve the entire barrier island, it also draws students from Gifford and The Palms, an apartment complex off Indian River Boulevard and 12th Street.
Last year’s school population was at 590 students and is expected to be approximately that again this year, said Wilson. The school’s capacity is approximately 555 students.
Along with adding portables and concretables to provide instructional space, school officials are trying to address lunchtime service.
“It’s hard to get everybody in and out in a reasonable time” at lunchtime, Wilson. Though the school’s 53-year-old cafeteria has been renovated over the years, it has not been expanded to handle the growing student population.
On-campus traffic is also a consideration in planning changes to the site. Wilson said that teachers have to hold some students in their classrooms at the end of the day so they can wait for their bus. She added that the current bus loop and its orientation is not working well for the bus drivers, who have to take Mockingbird Drive to make the turn into the school campus.
“It creates a gridlock,” Olson said.
Island resident and Beachland dad Pickering told the school board that the district should use the existing underbrush for any paving it needs for transportation needs and not remove the trees.
“I know this is a difficult challenge,” Pickering said, “but I think it’s really worth the effort for our children and their grandchildren.”
Olson added that while she and the district are sensitive to the issue of removing trees, everyone needs to remember that, at the end of the day, they are talking about a school site.
“Kids get one chance to go to school,” Olson said.