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Funding bill signed for Williston school, CCF campus

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By Lou Elliott Jones

With the swoosh of a pen Gov. Rick Scott signed the state budget for 2014-15 into law on Monday and the hopes for Levy County for a better future were realized.

Included in the document is $4.3 million in planning and construction money for the College of Central Florida's Jack Wilkinson campus that would be located on 35 acres north of Chiefland on U.S. Highway 19 and $11, 471,700 for construction of a new Williston Middle High School.

"This is the best day for Levy County in a long time," said College of Central Florida Levy Center Provost Marilyn Ladner, who was happy that after three heartbreaking vetoes of the project, it was OK'd by Scott.

The money — the first of three annual payments for the projects — will also bring an economic boom to the county which has seen plans for a $20 billion nuclear plant, a huge limerock mining operation and a 64-bed hospital wither away during the economic recession. The college campus construction will cost about $14 million while the Williston school will cost about $40 million. The Levy County School Board will be providing $6 million in money along with the state funds.

"This is a great day for Levy County. These are two huge projects," said Marilyn Ladner, provost of CF's Levy Center, better known as the "Sav-A-Lot campus" because of its location in a grocery shopping center. "I'm just so happy I don't know what to do. It's just that so many people worked so hard this year to make sure our story was told and it worked."

While the need for both education facilities, especially the college campus, which will cut commutes to Gainesville, Lake City or Ocala to attend four-year schools, has been apparent to students, residents and business in Levy County, the college funding has felt the sting of governors' vetoes three times — once by former Gov. Charlie Crist and twice by Scott.

The campaign to make apparent the need for higher education for the Tri-County Area "paid off" Ladner said.

"Besides just having totally outgrown that facility (in Chiefland) We cannot do a nursing program because we cannot do it witht hat facility. Our students can only do the prerequisites then drive 110 miles a day to do the rest of the programm" Ladner said.

"This will allow us to bring a nursing program to Levy County."

The new campus will also allow CF to offer cyber security training and other courses to complement a welding program already on outparcel buildings on the campus.

"This money will let us go into the pre-construction phase, select our architect and do the site design and land clearning," Ladner said. "And we have a little more infrastructure prep to do. But this guarantees the rest of the money" in future state budgets.

She said that by the time the next Legislative session is over in 2015, the campus will have done the site prep and the design and be ready to hit the ground with bricks and mortar.

The Williston Middle/High School money was assured a better chance of funding as House Speaker Will Weatherford, in a speech at the annual Levy Schools Foundation Gala in February, said he was in favor of giving the county the money for the new school.

Levy School Superintendent Bob Hastings, was on his way to the Bronson High School graduation when he spoke in a phone interview about winning the funding battle.

"I am so happy, so extremely excited about this," he said. "This is great for Levy County as well as for our citizens, students and staff."

He agreed with Ladner's assessment that the money will be helpful. "This may be a shot in the arm that will turn our economics around and help us gain students, instead of losing students every year."

Unlike the college, the middle/high school plan went through a vetting process at the state Department of Education where school and Williston officials and the community showed the deficiencies in the existing structures and why it could no longer be renovated to keep it operational, Hastings said.

Once it made the list of the Top 3 schools in critical need of replacement, the same people went to work on the Legislature. "We started getting in touch with everybody," Hastings said. "I went to Tallahassee on a regular basis and made appointments with anybody who had something to do with education." He said he met with legislators or their staff aides and provided additional information in a booklet the district prepared.

"That is certainly going to be a boost in the arms for the county," he said. "And we're very thankful that both sides of the county got a major project."

For those in Chiefland who wonder when the city schools will be getting help, work has already started on planning for construction of a Chiefland Middle/High School.

"We've already started working with an architect and doing schematics," Hastings said.

School Board Member Paige Brookins of Chiefland told the Chiefland Rotary Club several weeks ago that the joining of the independent middle and high schools into operation was the start of the process for getting a new school. She said at that time it could take five years to get the construction.

Hastings said on Monday, "We have already started working on it. We are getting our preliminary thoughts out there about what we need to do."