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$25M in stimulus funds still option for school district

By Staff | Aug 26, 2009

The Lee County School District continues to work on its 2009-10 budget while debating whether to accept $25 million worth of federal stimulus money for construction projects.
According to Budget Director Ami Desamours, the district’s budget increased $8 million — from when it was first introduced two weeks ago — to a total of $1.430 billion, mostly because federal funds are being deposited into its accounts.
On Sept. 8, the school board will vote on the final budget. Until then, the budget department is working to finalize its numbers.
Much of the district’s funding comes from student enrollment in the state’s Florida Education Finance Program so officials hope the amount of students is consistent with projections.
The unofficial student count on the first day of school was 75,150 students. A final count is released on the 11th day of school.
“At this point all indications look good, our FTE (full-time equivalent student) looks better than what we were looking at as a worst case scenario,” Desamours said.
The board also discussed Superintendent James Browder’s recommendation to procure capital funds from the federal Qualified School Construction Bonds program — stimulus dollars being given to school districts for construction or renovation projects.
Lee County and 11 other districts automatically qualified because they have a large share of students, ranging in age from 5 to 17, who live below the poverty level.
Browder said the district can borrow $12.7 million each year interest free, for two consecutive years, for a total of $25.4 million. The plan is to defer paying back the loan for five years and have it paid off in 15 years.
“From my standpoint I don’t think we can do anything better than to take these dollars and infuse them in the economy,” he said.
In a memorandum given to the board Friday, Browder recommended five construction projects that would benefit from the $25 million: the Public Service Academy, High Tech Central, Villas Elementary, Prototype Pavilion Elementary and Bonita Springs Elementary.
When the $25 million in stimulus money was first referenced, Board Member Robert Chilmonik asked if a portion of the funds could be used to install solar panels at facilities across the county.
According to Browder, the funds could be used for solar technology, but the savings related to this type of alternative technology would take decades to accrue.
For example, he said, the solar initiative at Florida Gulf Coast University will take 26 years until the university sees any return on its investment.
“When you look at what others have experienced, you realize that the payback is longer than the board wants to deal with,” Browder said.
School Board Attorney Keith Martin added that the funds can be for solar panels, but they have to be part of a renovation and not a project devoted specifically to installing solar technology.
Vice Chairman Steve Teuber supported using the stimulus funds. He said capital projects do not always need a clear return other than the investment the district is making toward education.
“When we build a school building, there is no payback, except for straight line appreciation,” Teuber said.
According to Browder, upgrading a district facility is savings enough because outdated buildings are being outfitted with the newest technology. One proposal is to use one year’s worth of funds or $12.7 million to upgrade the HVAC — the ventilating and air conditioning unit — at Cape Coral High School.
“I see savings as a result of this, but it is by the individual schools because we are upgrading those facilities,” he said.