Destin High looking at other sites

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log
The Destin Log

The school colors and mascot had been selected, and then COVID-19 swept across the country, making everybody take a step back -- even the governing board of the long-awaited Destin High School that had planned to open its doors in the fall of 2020 had to push pause.

"We were very close to closing on Destin United Methodist Church, then the COVID hit,“ said Sarah Stone, DHS board treasurer and head of fundraising for the school.

DHS had a contract to purchase Destin United Methodist Church and convert it into the school's campus, while DUMC had a simultaneous agreement to purchase the Grace Lutheran Church campus by the end of March.

COVID-19 swept in and plans changed.

“Nobody knew what schools were going to look like going forward,” Stone said, noting that Okaloosa schools all went to online teaching. “So we decided that the only real option for us at this point was for us to defer opening for a year.”

DHS can defer for one year and not lose their grant awarded by the state Department of Education, Stone said.

Plus, by pushing pause, it allows the board to “regroup and plan” and see what the Okaloosa County School District does going forward as well.

Okaloosa County schools, as well as all schools across the state, did not return to the classroom after mid-March due to a mandate from Gov. Ron DeSantis. All schools went to online teaching.

In the meantime, DHS and Destin United Methodist have “mutually parted ways” and the board is looking at other venues for the school, Stone said.

“Right now we are engaged with communications with Grace Lutheran ... we have some proposals on the table for retrofitting that campus for our school, as well as a financing proposal from an investor,” she said.

However, the DHS board has not made a “bona-fide offer yet,” but are in constant communication with Grace, Stone said.

The Grace Lutheran campus, located on Commons Drive, is smaller than the Destin United Methodist Church on Beach Drive. DUMC has eight acres and a gymnasium, while Grace has five acres and is located near a pool, the Destin Aquatic Center.

Stone said there were a lot of other spots they could open a school if they just wanted to get the school open and not let it be their final campus.

Nevertheless, “I think the heart of the board was to deliver a location that the community wanted and that we felt they deserve,” Stone said. “We’re going to fully pursue every location possibility that remains available in Destin.“

As for the students, DHS had more than 100 students enrolled in grades nine and 10 when everything came to stand still due to COVID-19.

So when they decided not to move forward with DUMC and defer opening the school until 2021, board members divided up the names of the students enrolled and called each parent individually.

“Many of them, although they were hugely disappointed to hear that news, they were still very supportive of what we are doing,” Stone said.

Plus several asked about possibly of including 11th graders that first year, although most schools start-up with just ninth and 10th graders for the first year.

Also right before the COVID-19 hit, the board had narrowed their search for a principal from 100 candidates down to three - one local, one from Jacksonville and another from Cleveland, Ohio. The board has since interviewed those three via Zoom.

“All three are still interested in the position ... and they are all still engaged with us,” she said.

But first and foremost is to secure a facility.

“We still have money in the bank,” Stone said, noting they were all caught up on their bills.

The group is not actively soliciting donations due to COVID-19 and the financial difficulties many have faced.

“We didn’t think it was appropriate to fund raise during this time,” Stone said.

DHS did get their letter of determination from the IRS for a 501-C3 right before the COVID-19 hit so they now have non-profit status as the school.

The board plans to have a facility locked down in the next 90 days so they can start retrofitting the campus.

The next step would be to hire a principal.

“Our goal is to get that leader of school in place, sooner than later, so that we have that figurehead, have that person that the parents can go to and talk to as opposed to the board,” Stone said. “We’re excited about what the future holds and we’re all still very much committed to deliver this to the community.”