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Guest Opinion: In rebuttal: School board answers political criticisms with facts

October 31, 2018
By Cathleen Morgan , North Fort Myers Neighbor

The Lee County School Board is committed to giving our community factually accurate information so voters and taxpayers can make informed decisions in regards to their school district, and the education of our children.

Today we again find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having to correct inaccurate information that was provided by Rep. Ray Rodrigues in an opinion published in a regional newspaper.

We have taken his comments (see below in italics) and addressed them point by point.

"First, the LCSD is using incorrect population projections to justify the need for higher taxes. This is occurring in two ways: The LCSD has inflated its data by including charter school students, Gardiner Scholarship students, and Virtual School students. The LCSD does not spend anything from its capital budget to provide facilities for any of these students; therefore, they should not be asking for additional capital funds on their behalf."

The School District of Lee County's enrollment growth projections are based on traditional public school students only. We do not include charter school students, virtual school students or Gardiner Scholarship students in those figures. In addition, we are not asking for funds on their behalf, we are asking voters to decide on a half-cent investment in education for our public schools only. It is important to add that although we do not include charter schools in our enrollment numbers, they do benefit from our capital outlay millage revenue per HB 7069 approved by our legislative delegation.

"The LCSD is using outdated student population projections. In her September 14, Op-Ed, school board member Jane Kuckel wrote, "The School District of Lee County is projected to grow between 1,500-2,000 students per year over the next 10 years. On July 24, the Florida Department of Education revised their projections of school growth and lowered the projected rate of growth. If you click on the official Department of Education report linked in the story, you will find that the Florida Department of Education's projections for Lee County are as much as 40% lower than the numbers the LCSD is claiming."

The School District of Lee County's uses a projection model that has proven repeatedly to be more accurate than the Florida Department of Education's and has been within a 0.42% variance between our actual and projected enrollment. Last year the DOE over projected Lee County's enrollment by 2%. The District's projection was off by 0.81%. The year before the DOE was off by 0.80%; the District was off by 0.38%. In 2015-16, the DOE under projected by 2.4%. The District's projection was within 0.08%. The DOE has repeatedly had to revise its projections based on the District's numbers.

"Second, the LCSD has a record of spending your tax dollars unwisely. For example, let's examine its last construction project, the Bonita High School. In her September 14, Op-Ed, Kuckel wrote, "The average statewide costs of a new high school is more than $65 million." Yet, Lee County taxpayers paid over 30% more ($85 million) for the just completed Bonita High School (OPPAGA Performance Audit of Lee County Schools, 8/28/18, p. 55)."

The average cost of construction for a new high school in the state of Florida is more than $65 million dollars. Bonita Springs High School will come in millions of dollars less than that. The $85 million estimate stated in the OPPAGA report was the total project cost, which includes not only the building, but also the land, which was purchased for $11 million, site improvements, all furnishings, career academy equipment and technology. When all is said and done, Lee County taxpayers will pay less per student station constructing Bonita Springs High School than Charlotte County residents did with Lemon Bay High School in 2016 without even considering annual inflation, and Manatee County residents will with North River High School set to open next school year.

"And who can forget the Lee County School Board voting in June to give our superintendent a $72,000 increase over the next 3 years? If we are in a fiscal crisis, why is the school board giving out substantial raises to administrators?"

Faced with paltry increases in state funding for public school operations, intense pressure to hire and retain quality educators, and competition for educators, Dr. Adkins and the School Board reorganized operations, cutting costs and boosting efficiency in order to free up sufficient funds to increase educator salaries and remain competitive. Over the last three years, the School District of Lee County has been able to raise teacher salaries to the 55th percentile in the state. Once we did that, the Board faced the need to do the same for Dr. Adkins, as the competition for leaders with his experience, knowledge and commitment is intense. Dr. Adkins runs the ninth largest school district in the state, and the 32nd largest in the country. His salary at the time of his hire was $183,000, significantly lower than his peers statewide, and he has received no raise in three years. Even with his new contract, Dr. Adkins is still one of the lowest paid Superintendents for a district of our size. In addition, if we were to lose him, a national search for his replacement could cost upwards of $100,000. Given the recognition the School District of Lee County is receiving statewide for academic progress under Dr. Adkins' leadership, it was a prudent decision.

"Finally, I oppose the tax increase because of the alarming results from the recent OPPAGA and Florida Auditor General audits."

When the Board decided to bring the half penny investment in education to Lee County voters, our legislative delegation voted to pass a law requiring us, and any other district doing the same, to undergo an OPPAGA (Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability) audit. We welcomed that audit and in August, OPPAGA released its findings, lauding the School District of Lee County for our "economical, effective and efficient operations." That same agency awarded us the Seal of Best Financial Management in 2006. All of our audits are available to read and download from our website: www.leeschools.net/our_district/change_for_change/financial_audits"www.leeschools.net/our_district/change_for_change/financial_audits

The most recent audit by the Florida Auditor General revealed the LCSD expended $13 million of impact fee revenue for unauthorized purposes and recommended they repay those funds to the Capital budget (Florida Auditor General Report #2019-26, p. 3).

Actually, the audit recommends that we either document to the Florida Department of Education the allowability of the impact fee transfers or restore those funds. Both state law and case law allow for spending impact fees on debt, which is what we do. Our accounting practices are consistent with public school practices statewide including Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange, Collier, Brevard, Osceola, Volusia and St. Lucie counties. In addition, the Florida Auditor General audits us every three years, and this has never come up as a finding until now. Paying down debt is simply standard practice and good business.

"The Florida Auditor General also discovered the LCDS was expending ad valorem tax proceeds for unauthorized purposes and recommended they repay those expenditures to the LCI fund. (Florida Auditor General Report #2019-26, p.4)."

Again, the audit recommended we either document to the FLDOE the allowability of the expenditures or restore the amount. The School District of Lee County provided ample evidence that ad valorem tax money was spent on mold remediation, removal of hazardous materials, air quality and flood remediation at our schools. Those expenses met the Safety to Life criteria and are permissible under Florida law.

The OPPAGA audit revealed that the LCSD has 882 acres of property, and only 143 acres are reserved for future schools. Kuckel wrote, "Last year, the district spent $52 million in "mortgage" payments." The debt for these properties are included in that debt service. OPPAGA recommends that the LCSD sell the excess property (OPPAGA Performance Audit of Lee County Schools, 8/28/18, p.6).

We are doing just that. After completing a 10-year forecast for property needs associated with projected student population growth, The School District of Lee County signed a contract with a commercial property broker in September. Properties needed for future growth are being held, and others will be sold or swapped for more desirable school sites.

Had the LSCD taken this step before asking for a tax increase, sales of the excess property could have reduced the amount of debt being serviced and provided a cash infusion from the sales. These funds and the money saved on debt service could have been used for maintenance and construction without reaching in your pocket for more tax dollars.

As much as we wish this were true, potential revenue from the sale of all district property even in the best market conditions would generate an estimated $67.3 million, not nearly enough to pay for a single new middle or high school. To keep up with growth we need six new schools, two rebuilds and one addition. While every little bit helps, this is a shortsighted solution as the sale of property leaves the District without the necessary sites to build new schools. In addition, the District would be at the mercy of an unpredictable commercial property market for future school sites.

"With the district's record of mishandling and misappropriating our tax dollars and the misleading student population projections, I can't support this referendum. Until the Lee County School Board earns back our trust, we should not approve their tax increase."

Finally it should be noted that in mid-August, Dr. Adkins, our District Legislative Liaison Carole Green and I reached out to all members of the Lee County delegation asking them to meet with us. Discussions held with those who responded were positive and generally supportive of our District, our vision and mission for the education of our children, and the strengthening of our community. We hope to meet with those who did not respond before the 2019 Legislative committee work sessions begin.

- Cathleen Morgan, District 7, serves as the chair of the School Board of Lee County.

 
 

 

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