James McGhee II is really hoping that the third time is the charm.
In a special referendum April 21, Palmetto Bay residents will again go to the polls on the question of whether McGhee’s Alexander Montessori School can increase enrollment from 270 to 329 students.
“We are hopeful this time around,” McGhee said. “Folks want to have a say, but at the same time they think the school’s been a good neighbor.”
In June 2013, the school asked voters precisely this question – and received a resounding 67.6 percent vote in favor. But in Palmetto Bay, that’s not actually enough.
Following a 2009 voter-approved charter amendment, village law requires private schools seeking an increased enrollment cap to receive a yes vote from 75 percent of the electorate living within 2,000 square feet of the school. Only once it meets that 75 percent threshold can the school bring the question to council, where four out of five members must approve the plans. The school must bear all of the referendum’s cost.
“It’s hard to get 75 percent. That number is really pretty extreme. But we’re struggling to do so, to meet with the neighbors, to address their concerns,” McGhee said.
Typically, enrollment caps are reconsidered as part of zoning applications before a municipal council. But in Palmetto Bay, an extended, divisive and litigious battle between private school Palmer Trinity, nearby residents, and the village over the school’s plans to expand led one group of residents to collect more than 2,000 signatures to place a charter amendment on the 2009 ballot. It passed with 68 percent of the vote.
Montessori school officials have repeatedly maintained the 75 percent threshold is too high and last November, they asked voters to amend the charter to bring it down to a simple majority. That measure failed, with 51.4 voting against.
“We’ve always said we would rather work with the village and work with the community. That’s why we went through the effort to try and change the charter,” he said. “We would rather talk with people and listen to them than to just litigate. And we haven’t done that so far. We’re just hoping that this time will be the charm.”
McGhee and his wife, Joyce, who co-heads the school, have personally visited the home of every eligible voter, he said. About 320 electors live within 2,000 feet of the school’s Ludlam Road elementary campus at 14850 SW 67th Ave.
McGhee said that this time, the school has focused its campaign efforts on educating voters about the details of the project. He’s highlighted that the school’s plans for a new building has already been approved unanimously by the council, and that staggered arrival and dismissal times tied to the new master plan should lessen traffic congestion, even if enrollment goes up.
“I think if people know about the building project — it’s already been approved — they will think, wow, what an enhancement to the community,” he said.
McGhee has previously said the school would not build without the added students, but has since reversed positions.
Increased enrollment “would certainly help” finance the project, but the school is committed to going ahead with construction, he said. It hopes to open its new two-story, LEED-certified energy-efficient building in the fall of 2016, he said.
Eligible voters can cast their votes absentee via mail-in ballot or in person from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on April 21 at the Christ Congregational Church, 14920 SW 67th Ave.