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Growth brings money crunch

Numbers show need for new schools, student seats, greater than funding projections

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Dec 7, 2023

The School District of Lee County may need to decrease the number of new schools and student seats needed to meet projected student enrollment over the next 10 years.

That could mean larger schools, less maintenance, finding new revenue streams and more debt.

What comes next will come down to funding.

“It is still not a great picture. We are definitely looking at some critical decisions moving forward,” Superintendent Dr. Christopher Bernier said at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “The sales tax, if not renewed, runs out in 2028. There will still be residual dollars because it is a trailing fund. Some money takes us through 2029. With what we build in 2029, we are in pretty good shape by 2030. That is a pretty critical point where we still don’t know. Anything projected beyond 2030 is an increase level of risk of what will transpire.”

Faced with a projected enrollment of more than 114,000 next year, staff is maximizing its time between now and January on components of the district’s capital plan.

“It is a living document, but it shouldn’t be able to change by either staff changing it alone, or an individual board changing it alone. It has to be the seven individuals that occupy the seats,” Bernier said.

Chief Financial Officer Dr. Ami Desamours said the district’s initial 10-year plan was out of balance by $1.9 billion. Staff reduced the working forecast by $900 million with new construction, facilities and expansions, falling from 17 to 12 with a reduction of almost $700 million.

In addition, the plan reduced planned property purchases by $10.4 million and proposed maintenance by about $200 million.

“The capital plan in front of you is also contemplating taking on additional debt, or revenue in the form of debt of about a billion in a 10-year span,” Desamours said.

The presentation included five recommendations:

• Increase school size at the secondary level — middle and high school

• Reduce the number of new buildings

• Decrease maintenance expenditures by expanding rotation cycles and eliminating some planned enhancements, which increases the risk of critical failures and possibly increases operational costs

• Restructure, increase, debt to provide more funds

• Explore additional revenue streams.

“The capital plan as currently structured does anticipate the expiration of the half cent sales tax in 2028 and does not anticipate any additional funding sources beyond what we currently have,” Desamours said.

Planning Growth & Capacity Director Dr. Adam Molloy began the presentation by sharing the enrollment from 2003 to the projected enrollment of 2033 – 58,438 students to 114,563 students. The district’s current seat capacity is 91,773 students.

If the projected 114,563 students in 2033 comes to fruition, then the district would face a 16,539-seat shortfall.

The district took a proactive approach with a 10-year plan, which was introduced to the board Aug. 16 and included 17 new school district facilities to accommodate the growth with 28,380 student seats, which would position the seat excess of 5,642 in 2033. This had an estimated cost of $2,173,966,000.

With board direction, the district crunched more numbers and decreased the new facilities to 12 with 17,780 new student seats, decreasing the estimated cost to $1,484,852,592.

“Today we are adjusting the capital 17,780 seats at a cost of $1.4 billion with 12 school district facilities. This modification reflects a reduction of over 10,000 student seats,” Molloy said.

The presentation also focused on the 2024 capital plan prototypes which would design larger middle and high schools to allow the district to resolve the capacity issues sooner. The proposed increase for middle schools would go from 1,200 current capacity to 1,800 student seats. The high school would increase from 2,000 to 2,800.

This provided some pause for board members with some asking if they could have more K-8 school buildings.

Bernier said a K-8 school does not help as it does not grow enough of the middle school population in the areas it is needed the most.

An elementary school has 1,000 seats, middle school 1,800 seats and a K-8 has 1,600 seats.

“It may be a great learning environment, but not necessarily the capacity for our students,” Molloy said.

Board member Chris Patricca said she is worried about the increased capacity at the middle and high school level — not the prototypes, but the human relationships inside the building.

“Human relationships have a significant impact on educational outcomes,” she said.

Molloy said the 12 projects include an expansion at Bayshore Elementary School of 300 seats, making it a K-8 school to be completed by 2028 with an estimated cost of $50,000,000.

Other west zone projects include Hector Cafferata K-8, 1,620 seats to be completed in 2026, High OOO, 2,800 seats to be completed in 2026, and elementary 0 with 1,000 seats to be completed in 2028.

Other projects include the remodel of Bonita Springs Elementary School to be completed 2025 and Cypress Lake Middle rebuild to be completed 2026.

The remaining projects are in the east zone and include a high school with 2,800 seats, one middle school with 1,200 seats, three elementary schools for a total of 3,000 seats and Innovations School K-8 with 1,260 seats.

“The proposed list includes two in the South Zone, four new schools in the West Zone and eight schools in the East Zone,” Molloy said. “The projected cost is over $1.4 billion. The implementation of the proposed schools (would add) 17,000 additional seats in the school district.”

“What does this mean if both projects hold true? It indicates a potential capacity stress of portables and increased class sizes,” Molloy said. “We proposed to spend less money. Perhaps we might witness a halt in growth.”

The plan also includes maintenance rotations, which has a cost savings of $200 million. The 2024 examples include chillers, roofs and gutters, electrical panels, interior lighting, switchgear upgrades, bathroom upgrades, window replacements, and athletic related items.

“Our commitment and focus on existing facilities is $1.25 billion in planned projects. A reduction of $200 million in maintenance rotation from the previous plan,” Operational Planning and Project Management Executive Director Frederick Ross said. “These reductions were accomplished by expanding rotation cycles and eliminating some planned projects. It does increase the risk of critical failures and may increase operational costs.”

Many board members were not comfortable with the change in the maintenance of the school buildings.

“Cutting back on maintenance is the thing I object to the most,” Patricca said. “I would rather see portables, kids sitting in cafeterias rather than cutting back on maintenance. It is so much more expensive to replace a system that failed catastrophically.”