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Lee County School Board passes on federal funds

By Staff | Nov 4, 2009

Lee County schools officials are opting out of an offer of federal stimulus money after learning the money has more strings attached than originally thought.
Members of the Lee County School Board met Tuesday for a regular briefing meeting and learned that the $25 million in construction money being offered interest-free over two years will actually incur about $900,000 in fees and interest.
The stimulus money offer was amended, attorney Jerry Ford said, after the market dried up more than expected and investors who would have backed the millions of dollars worth of tax credit bonds started demanding a more solid return on the investment.
That return to investors will come mostly from interest on the bonds, which were initially supposed to be interest-free and paid back over a 15-year period.
“Can we manage if we don’t do this? Yes,” said Superintendent James Browder. “Does this give us an advantage over what we had anticipated? Yes. It still costs money that we didn’t anticipate in the discussion. That’s why I wanted Mr. Ford here … so all of us can get a feel for where we want to be.”
Board members decided by consensus to forgo using the money in the coming year, but newly-minted chairman Steven Teuber said they have not closed the door on the issue for fiscal year 2011.
“Next year, if it changes, it’s still an option,” he said after the meeting. “But we’re not going for it this year and are going to free it up for other districts to use.”
Other districts are lining up to use the money, Ford told the board.
Only one district has secured the construction bonds so far — Broward County managed to lock in on the bonds before the interest rate was tacked on.
Lee County was one of 11 school districts in Florida to qualify for the bonds because it is one of 100 school districts in the nation with the highest proportion of children living in families that fall below the poverty level.
The money could only be used for construction, which the district has slowed down on in the past two years while enrollment has either fallen or stagnated after years of steady growth.
However, board members still brought up the irony of accepting stimulus money to create construction jobs after eliminating several hundred positions from classrooms, schools and district offices.
“You know, we laid some folks off,” said board member Jeanne Dozier. “If we do this, it’s not going to help the folks we laid off because they’re not in the construction industry.”
None of the projects proposed under the first year’s $12.7 million in bonds are issues of life safety, Browder told the board.
The projects are also all in the district’s five-year plan and would be completed in the future but at a cost to the district, plus any interest incurred on regular construction costs.
Renovations or additions were called for at Bonita Elementary School’s cafeteria, High Tech Center Central, Villas Elementary School, the Public Service Academy and the construction of a prototype outdoor pavilion at one undetermined elementary school.

Leslie Williams is a staff writer for the Naples Daily News. Contact lwilliams@naplesnews.com.