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Local officials react to state rep’s school funding suggestions

By Staff | Apr 14, 2015

The School District of Lee County responded to a list of solutions that Rep. Matt Caldwell feels would help the district overcome financial deficits to build new schools without raising taxes.

School board member Steve Teuber said the district wrote a joint letter to the Florida House of Representatives sharing its appreciation for the suggestions that Rep. Caldwell provided for the capital outlay crisis in Lee County. He said unfortunately the solutions are not pragmatic and feasible, which he believes is based on the lack of information.

Caldwell said, starting a year or two ago, discussions began as concerns were shared about the looming potential problem the district was facing for construction of new schools.

“Universally we had the conversation about this and finally decided as the district looked like (they were) considering a sales tax increase, it was probably best to put our thoughts together as a House delegation to have clear understanding of where we are coming from,” he said.

Caldwell sent a letter to the School District of Lee County highlighting eight proposals that would raise funds needed for the construction of new schools.

“The real key is ultimately on the district to find the solutions they need to,” he said. “We want to make sure we are helpful and explore every option before we get to a stronger discussion about taxes.”

The school district letter states that “if the legislature does not provide relief on the local tax cap issue, the Lee County School board will have to consider several of the remaining options asking taxpayers for an increase in revenues or decreasing services. We believe that neither one is an appropriate solution. Districts should have a mechanism for meeting their capital needs without additional surtaxes being required.”

One of the proposals was “considering an expansion of the charter relationship with the City of Cape Coral.”

Caldwell said that Cape Coral has shown that it really likes to run its own schools. He said he talked with Mayor Marni Sawicki and she indicated that she would be interested, as well as the City Council, in taking oversight of more schools.

“The charter school system is responsible for maintaining their own buildings. It has to be self-sufficient. They have shown they can be with the four buildings,” he said of the current charter schools.

Caldwell said if the city were to take on more schools it would eliminate capital maintenance cost for the school district. He said if the city took on more schools it would allow the city to be its own miniature school district.

“Cape Coral by themselves would still be a very large school district,” he said.

Cape Coral City Councilmember Jim Burch said he loves the city’s charter school system because it is a great system that statistically performs well.

“We have a long waiting list for kids to get in there,” he said. “It’s a remarkable system that has always done well.”

Before conversations can be made about doing something between the charter system and the Lee County School system, Burch said discussions will have to be had about how the charter system can take advantage of more funding. He said he does not see how the charter system can continue to succeed without really getting the benefit of the Lee County public system funds to operate the schools.

“There are a whole lot of discussions to be had about the funding,” Burch said. “The bricks and mortar, we can talk about that. The dollars have to be talked about.”

He said they are not going to jeopardize the system by combining every other school in Cape Coral just to create one charter school system to run on less cost.

“Cost is not the end all for education,” Burch said. “We struggle on an annual basis on how everybody believes (we) can make a school system better.”

He said making a system better starts with investing in teachers, schools and programs, and parents investing time in their kids.

Another possible solution, Caldwell said, would be starting a pilot program of implementing a trimester schedule at the high school level. He said the school district already has to run air conditioning throughout the summer to prevent mold.

“I think you definitely need to evaluate that possibility and figure out why that wouldn’t work,” Caldwell said.

Another possible solution deals with the flexibility with transportation. Caldwell said if the school district were to reorganize the school zones and create more zones to have five or six, it would reduce the transportation cost across large zones.

Caldwell also mentioned in his possible solutions expanding the relationship with Florida SouthWestern State College. He said about four years ago the college started an academic high school charter program in Fort Myers and Charlotte County providing a student self-select program where they can elect to remove themselves from a normal high school and apply to the charter school. By enrolling in the program, the students would receive an AA after completing high school.

Caldwell said since the college system is overseen by the state, the funding for buildings on college and university campuses is within the state budget.

“The college university system is funded directly by the state budget,” he said. “We don’t fund specifically Fort Myers High or Cape Coral High. We fund buildings at college and universities directly.”

Caldwell said the school district is one of the largest in the state and certainly one of the largest in the nation. He asked if the school district would save by building smaller campuses in more places, which would also decrease transportation costs.

Caldwell also mentioned that the district could also save money by building a high school on an existing K-8 campus.

The separation of impact fee authority from the county was also a part of Caldwell’s letter to the school board. He said they would be willing to discuss a statutory transfer directly to the school board.

“We have offered,” Caldwell said of the offer that was given to the board for a few years.

The last solution would be for the district to take on the real estate ownership approach.

“If you took all the real estate and put it in a real estate trust that is a lot of money you can raise from the private market,” he said.