A Catholic School in Niceville? Here’s What We Know:

In Brief:

  • Jeff Witt organized a meeting at 3rd Planet Brewing in Niceville to gauge interest in starting a Catholic school, highlighting strong community support and the absence of a nearby Catholic school.
  • The project envisions creating a faithful, affordable, and excellent Catholic school, with potential locations including Holy Name of Jesus Church and Christ Our Redeemer Catholic Church.
  • Next steps include community input through a poll, forming committees for various aspects of the project, and leveraging Florida’s voucher program to help fund tuition costs.

At the end of the meeting, Jeff Witt asked the crowd of 150 or so Catholic adults curious about a grassroots effort to start a Catholic school in Niceville to join him in The Lord’s Prayer.


Before he could say “Our Father,” some 100 voices had already begun on their own.


The meeting, which quickly outgrew the side room at 3rd Planet Brewing in Niceville and had to move outside into the beer garden on the side of the facility, gauged interest in the project of creating a Catholic School in the city. Witt believes the people who showed up today are roughly half the number of families who’ve shown initial interest.


“There is a strong appetite for Catholic Education in the community. It’s a thriving [Catholic] community, and people want to send their kids where they can get a Catholic education – and we don’t have that,” he said.


Witt, a parishioner at Christ our Redeemer Catholic Church, where he teaches religious education for kindergartners, came up with the idea to start a school last fall. He says now is the time to consider doing something like this. Rapid growth in the Deer Moss Creek area of Niceville makes him believe that a Catholic community he already describes as “thriving” will continue to grow. Second, he believes there is an appetite for Catholic education. “All I have to do right now is look around the room right now,” Witt said, “you guys all turned out because I sent an email and spread the word a bit – and here you are.” Other factors for consideration include that the nearest Catholic school is nearly twenty miles away.


No concrete plans have been laid down yet for what this Catholic school should look like. Witt will soon send out a poll to everyone who wants to participate to answer a few questions. He and his small team of volunteers want to get more community input before making hard decisions.




Ultimately, the team would like to start with something and then expand to K-12 education. “The vision is to bring a faithful, affordable, and excellent Catholic School to Niceville that will form the hearts and minds of our children to know, love, and serve God.

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The State of Florida solved a significant portion of the funding situation for families to send their children to Catholic and other non-public schools across the state when the state legislature passed and the governor signed into law a bill that essentially allows parents to take money allocated by the state for each student (about $7,800 per child) and use it to pay for tuition to a private school.


That means that most children in the area represented by the Catholic Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee (called a diocese) would have the lion’s share of their tuition paid for by the State of Florida. Other Catholic Schools in the diocese, like Tallahassee’s St. John Paul II ($12,000), Pensacola’s Catholic High School (8,100), Panama City’s St. John’s ($8,600), and Fort Walton Beach’s St. Mary’s ($8,575) are heavily, though not wholly, subsidized by the state.


This also means Okaloosa County School District Schools would shrink by the same $7,800 per child they would have otherwise had.


Though parents may have a significantly easier time paying for private schools thanks to the voucher program, the school itself would still need to find funding for capital costs. That would likely require a loan from the Catholic Diocese of Pensacola Tallahassee, which would, in turn, rely on fundraising efforts of local supporters of Catholic education.


With the cost of a new public Elementary School (around $16 Million) and a new public high school ($46 Million) what they are (according to the Florida Department of Education – the community has some uphill battles ahead of the project, but it’s not impossible. During the meeting, Several members pointed out that Holy Name of Jesus Church raised roughly “$2 Million in cash to pay for a multipurpose building. Imagine what people will be willing to contribute when it is for their children,” one man said. Another man, who did not identify himself, said that he had served as a leader on one of the church’s financial committees and believed one or both churches did not have the financial stomach to prepare for a capital campaign of the magnitude necessary to support a new school in the area.


Witt envisions students coming from not just the Niceville area but also Crestview, Freeport, Destin, and South Walton. He says he drew a 25-mile circle around Niceville and noted that there are nine Catholic churches inside that circle. Most of the people in the crowd for the meeting, all but two, were from either of the Niceville Parishes.


Still, Witt and his team of volunteers believe that breaking into the other seven parish communities outside of Niceville, which are still close enough to commute, would make the school a much more viable option sooner.


A ballpark estimate of the parishioners by a member of the finance council at Holy Name of Jesus assumes about 300 families attend the church which could play host to the school. Multiply that number by the nine churches in commuting distance and there are about 2700 Catholic families. Not all of those famlies have children and not all of those families have a desire to send their children to Catholic School. However, that is the starting pool Witt and his fellow Catholic School Advocates can begin to work with.


Witt suggested four different locations that could be included in the school district’s plans, each with differing financial requirements.


The least expensive option would see the school start by using the religious education classrooms on Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church campus on Valparaiso Blvd in Niceville. The building has about ten classrooms and would require sharing them between the school and the Sunday School classrooms. The church also has about 10 acres of open land on the northeastern side of the campus that could be used for future construction – should the church allow it.


The second option would be the campus of Christ Our Redeemer Catholic Church in Bluewater Bay, near the Mid Bay Bridge. That church has the same amount of land – about 10 acres, but half of it Witt described as “swampy.”


Options three and four were more speculative and included a 25 acre parcel of land currently owned by the Okaloosa County School District in Bluewater Bay, and a parcel of land owned by the Air Force that is known as orphan property near the Mid Bay Bridge. Other groups, including the City of Niceville hope to see Eglin Air Force Base position itself to sell the land which has been cut off from the rest of the range, and made unusable for testing areas.

Finding Educators

Next on the list – finding Catholic educators.


It could be an uphill battle.


There aren’t many Catholics in the 18 west Florida Counties that make up The Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. The diocese says it is home to roughly 64,000 practicing Catholics—about 4.5% of the area’s total population.


Jessica Frady, a parent who came to the meeting, said that her teacher friends don’t feel supported in the public school system and would be ready for a change to a Catholic School should the opportunity arise. “a lot of times they feel like, their education [of students] is geared towards taking a test and a lot of educators don’t get into it for that reason. So I would say that’s number one, and then number two; it seems like parents are not as supportive of teachers overall.” She says those teachers would value a private school environment where they could make a living but not have to deal with distractions from students she says have become commonplace in public school classrooms.


What’s more, most teachers certified by the state would have a financial incentive to stay at a public school, as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says Public School Teachers make about 9.8% more than private school teachers.


One woman said the teachers’ salaries must be competitive with those of public schools to make the school the best in the area. She noted that the school paid the same as the public school, and they were able to have their pick of teachers because it also offered a higher quality of life for the teachers.


Next Steps

The group’s next meeting will take place on September 15th to determine action items for people who want to be involved. Then, committees for public relations and fundraising, curriculum, and more will be decided.  


In the meantime, Jeff Witt and his enthusiastic volunteers hope to avoid losing momentum. “I think it’s really key. If you lose momentum, it’s hard to restart the engine, you know? So to me, the key is to build on today’s success, take a step forward next time, and not let this falter.”


If you want to contact Witt or learn more about the program, you can email holyfamilyniceville@gmail.com for more information.

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