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School district makes changes to captial plan; 2 projects within Cape reclassified

By Staff | Oct 8, 2008

A discussion by Lee County School Board members on Tuesday afternoon centered on the construction of new schools after Superintendent James Browder outlined changes to the district’s capital plan.

School construction plans have been at the forefront of district planning over the last five years because of the continual growth of the Lee County student population and requirements of the Class Size Amendment. Both issues have required more buildings in the long run to seat students.

There have been some changes to capital projects slated to open in August 2009, Browder explained. The Gunnery Road Site, a proposed elementary school, was removed from the capital plan while the Michigan Elementary project was downsized.

In Cape Coral, two renovation projects at Cape Coral High and Mariner High were changed from “additions” to “renovations.” The original intent was to add seat capacity to the high schools to end the use of portable classrooms, but now certain structures at the school will be renovated.

The board originally approved the two projects worth $10 million for additions.

“Two additions at Cape High and Mariner have been changed to renovations,” said Browder. “No seats will be added in those schools.”

Changes to Mariner High will include classroom renovations to accommodate the new math and technology program and at Cape Coral High the district will renovate the school’s cafeteria, a project that Browder said is similar to one completed at Cypress Lake High in 1998.

The old cafeteria at Cape High has often been described as one of the most antiquated in the entire school district, and the most difficult for faculty to supervise.

“We plan on adding some space there so those kids have a real cafeteria that can be supervised easily,” he said.

In his report to the board, Browder explained there is currently very little capital activity at this time, except for general maintenance.

“The biggest portion of the activity is in maintenance, upkeep and HVAC replacements,” he said.

At the same meeting, Board Member Robert Chilmonik presented the board with his “Financial Rescue Suggestions,” which asked the board to employ an independent firm to look for “waste and operating inefficiencies,” and for board members to reconsider the failed flexibility referendum that transfers money from capital to operating.

“They did something similar in Collier County and they have great parental support,” said Chilmonik.

According to Chilmonik, the district has halted two high school projects and one middle school project that amount to approximately $200 million, money he claims can be used to offset the budget shortfall if it could be transferred to operating. On the other hand, Browder explained that because of fund reductions that $200 million could be much less.

The superintendent and other members of the board have never supported the flexibility referendum because many of the district’s capital debts are reoccurring, meaning that the debt is carried on for years.

Furthermore, Browder said on Tuesday that the upcoming legislative session could result in the state taking even more of the school district’s two-mill money, and as a result, debt service obligations could inflate. Transferring money could force the district to default on its debt obligations.

“We can’t get out there and expand capital dollars for anything and run the risk of not being able to pay for debt service,” said Browder. “I’m very concerned we might be in one of those situations where we can’t make ends meet.”

Also in his suggestions to the board, Chilmonik said the district should be using frozen funds from Part B of the SBA’s local government investment pool to cover budget shortfalls. Recently, the district transferred $13.9 million of its own funding that was formerly trapped in the pool because of the subprime meltdown. Chilmonik said that $15 million still remains.

He also jabbed at the district’s land purchasing policy, saying that it is currently in possession of 900 acres of vacant land or the equivalent of 30 schools, and he pointed out that closing costs of $100,000 per land purchase could be reduced.

“In 2007 the district spent $40,000 to $50,000 per closing for due diligence,” said Chilmonik. “I see at least two years of very difficult times when it comes to funding and the budget.”