By Richard Sullins |

Having enough capacity to accommodate the levels of growth being forecasted for Lee County over the next 10 years requires a large number of seats at the discussion table. But few of those chairs will be more important to those conversations than the ones occupied by the Lee County Schools district.

Simply put, the number of families having school-aged children and who might consider making their homes here will be negatively impacted if there is no room for them in our classrooms.

Getting those sorts of conversations started is vital if Lee County hopes to continue its success in luring more and better-paying jobs here by the time population is estimated to reach 65,000 persons by the end of 2025. The Facilities and Technologies Committee of the Lee County Board of Education got out its defibrillator recently in an attempt to bring back to life the process by which new schools get built and existing schools are updated.

A place to start the conversation”

The units of county government are already working to create lists of items they want to see in the county’s upcoming budget for Fiscal Year 2023-24. The school board was among the first to get started this year and the committee got its first look at six projects that could potentially be on the district’s wish list of capital improvements when the new budget year begins on July 1.

This document, known as the Capital Improvements Program, is a five-year plan intended to stimulate thinking among the school board on what priorities should be established as part of a strategic effort to create the best possible network of structures to facilitate learning among students.

LCS Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan told the committee that developing a plan that projects the school system’s needs over a five-year period needs a definite beginning point, saying “this is a summary of where we think we might be. It’s a place to at least start the conversation.”

What’s in the plan

The CIP includes, at least for now, the construction of an auditorium and six new classrooms at Southern Lee High School that would be funded in FY 2023-24 if the request gets approval. When the school was completed in 2005, a planned auditorium had to be cut from the campus’ architectural drawings because there weren’t enough funds. The cost of building out the auditorium and learning spaces is estimated to be $13,306,975.

Lee County High School, which last saw construction in 2011, needs repairs and upgrades across its campus, too. The HVAC system in the auditorium needs replacement, there is asbestos that needs to be removed or abated, and all classrooms, restrooms, and hallways needs upgrading. The total estimated cost for these renovations at LCHS is $6,492,500.

When the East Lee and West Lee middle schools were completed in 1978, each was outfitted with a gymnasium that didn’t have a regulation sized court and seating was limited to no more than 280 persons. The CIP proposes new gyms be built on each of the campuses.

The architectural design for both gyms would include a connection with the existing smaller ones. This new design would allow for the creation of bigger courts that would be regulation-sized for basketball and volleyball, with seating capacity increased to 800 persons. They would be identical and cost $11,167,100 per facility.

The plan also contains cost estimates for constructing either a new elementary school ($43,325,700) or a middle school ($53,307,400), and for land acquisition ($2,450,700).

More than construction costs

Bryan acknowledged that average daily enrollment numbers provided by the Department of Public Instruction show that about 9,100 students attend the county’s 17 schools each day, a number that has rebounded by about 100 students from last year but still well below the current capacity of the system to hold just over 10,400 students a day.

Bryan believes the county is just on the cusp of a boom that will happen as new homes are completed and new industries come online. He cited the authorization of about 12,000 new homes that have been approved for construction in the county over the past two years. He recognized that not all of the homes given approval will actually be built, but even if new owners occupy just 30 percent of that number, that will still create a potential for up to 3,600 new students or more.

Republican County Commissioner Bill Carver, who serves as his group’s liaison with the school board and was present for the meeting, agreed that the county needs solid numbers to base its planning assumptions on.

“I’m not sure who has the best crystal ball here,” he said. “One thing that would help me as a commissioner is to state what the hypothesis is – what percentage of those 12,000 homes approved will actually be built. Also, what will the entry points that will be needed in the elementary, middle, and high schools ranges where they will need to enroll?”

A second issue the boards will have to address concerns the county’s ability to have enough teachers to staff any new schools. Like other counties, Lee has had its share of teachers leave the classroom to work in larger and more affluent surrounding counties that pay more.

It’s a concern that was expressed by committee member Jamie Laudate.

“None of us wants to run the risk of building another school not only without students to go there, but also of not having enough teachers to staff the classrooms,” he said.

The state provides funding for the salaries of most teachers, but the county also receives salary money from federal and local sources, grants, and institutional funds that provide dollars for things like art and music instruction that have been eliminated from school budgets over the past few decades.

Having a large pool of teacher candidates and the ability to pay them well is a concern for Carver.

“I’ve been thinking more in terms of the amount of money the commissioners give to fill the teacher slots,” he said. “As important as it is for us to talk about buildings and land, it wouldn’t make sense for us to spend tens of millions of dollars for those things if we wouldn’t have enough students and faculty make those engines run.”

What comes next?

A discussion about the CIP is on the agenda for Tuesday evening’s meeting of the school board. That’s a critical step if there is to be any hope for growing our school system. Another will come when Dr. Bryan meets soon with Don Kovasckitz, the county’s director of GIS strategic services, and others to look in greater detail for places where growth is most likely to occur in Lee County and what tracts of land might be suitable for a new school location.

School board member Alan Rummel is expected to report on the restart of the planning process at Tuesday’s meeting. With construction costs continuing to rise, the estimated price tag for new school construction is estimated to be around $285 per square foot. Time is of the essence for other reasons, too. From the first conversation about the process until the day that a new school can open, three years will have gone by. If there is determined to be a need for a new school in the near future, the earliest it could open now would be 2026.

But one circumstance that sets Lee County apart from others with similar needs shouldn’t be an issue in the near future. After a summary of its financials was presented in December, County Manager Dr. John Crumpton told the commissioners “if we needed to spend money today on schools, we are ready. I want to make that perfectly clear. We are ready.”

While anxious to get the discussion started, Rummel favors an approach that move slowly at first as it builds consensus.

“We need to make clear to the commissioners that we are not asking for new elementary or middle schools, but we could couch it as saying that we think we see coming about 3,800 new students,” he said. “And we need to be planning for that day.”