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Council reaches consensus on charter schools

By Staff | May 23, 2018

The Cape Coral City Council reached a consensus on a pair of issues regarding the city’s beleaguered charter school system Tuesday during its Committee of the Whole meeting at City Hall.

Council agreed to allow City Manager John Szerlag to track all personnel and operating costs, check the costs for how they operate and compare them to the private sector, address capital to be more competitive amongst other schools, and determine appropriate fund balances, among other things.

The charter school system will be using its fund balance to fill a half million dollar hole in the budget that originally had a $2.1 million shortfall. The next two years don’t look promising either, with $1.6 million and $1.7 million shortfalls in FY 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Councilmember Marilyn Stout took issue with the fact the charter school system was originally designed to not use city money to fund it. She saw no reason to change that now.

“We should not have to pay with city taxes. That’s double taxation. The study regarding costs is a good idea, but with the fund balances they have, why use money from the general fund?” Stout asked.

Councilmember Jessica Cosden answered that the charter school system is now in a state of crisis.

“The state hasn’t properly funded the schools. We have these unfunded mandates like Chromebooks and SROs. The $311,000 charge-back can pay for the Chromebooks,” Cosden said.

Superintendent of Schools Jacqueline Collins was happy the council reached a consensus.

“It’s a great step in the right direction. It will be a win/win for our schools and the city. It’s great to partner together to help the city’s schools succeed,” Collins said. “There are some administrative services the city can cover that can free up money for teacher salaries and things like that.”

The charter schools are waiting for the School District of Lee County to give them the $1.7 million due to them as a result of H.B. 7069. Lee County joined 12 other Florida school boards in filing a lawsuit challenging portions of the bill. That money would go a long way toward filling those financial gaps.

Another way the schools can raise revenues is with a sports park behind the Oasis High School, an item that was also discussed. Mayor Joe Coviello said with the city growing, the need for new sports parks grows.

A sports park, which has been estimated to cost up to $9 million, would include a football and soccer field and a track, with a baseball and softball field.

The park idea got an ally in the form of the Lee County Hawks football program, which was founded 2013, but has lived a nomadic existence since.

While most on council found the $9 million price tag a little high, the board members seemed to like the idea.

Stout was again in the minority, asking where all the money from all the requests for funding the charter schools want is going to come from.

Council members said the field would be a lot more palatable if they could find private investors regarding naming rights.

“We have to get the private sector involved. That $9 million is a little high to me. But there’s true value in putting in a facility,” Coviello said. “I support pushing forward for the charter schools and the community at large.”

D&D boat ramp

The council was mixed regarding a discussion on the D&D boat ramp, which the city bought in 2012.

City staff presented three development scenarios: to either seek P-3 development on the city-owned property, develop without P-3, or sell or seek P-3 development partners for the entire site.

Each option had an A or B, with the A option having all the amenities, including an island, for $3.3 million. The B option would drop the cost almost in half, to $1.7 million.

Councilmember Rick Williams wants to sell, partly as a way to help fund the charter schools and the park. The appraised value is $3.6 million

“There’s no room to park there now. You want a restaurant there? Micelli’s is already packed and cars are all parked along Pine Island Road,” Williams said. “That’s $2 million in the general fund and we have a lot of big-money requests. We need to sell some of this land.”

Councilmember John Carioscia said, “Go big or go home. This is a jewel we need to utilize,” and went with the first option, something Stout and fellow Councilmember Jennifer Nelson agreed with.

Councilmember John Gunter came up with a potential number that showed the city could potentially develop big without having to take out a loan if everything fell in the right place, using Ford’s Boathouse as an example of how the city being a landlord can be profitable, then adding the parking and boating component.

Szerlag said he would start with the 1-B concept and maybe work the way up.