By Richard Sullins |

The $105 million budget that will fund the operations of county government for the next 12 months won’t take effect until July 1. But even before that happens, the Lee County Board of Education went back before the county commissioners on June 19, to ask for more money than what they will receive in next year’s revenue and spending plan.

This additional request made by the school board was for the purchase of an eight classroom mobile pod that would be located at Southern Lee High School to relieve overcrowding there until a new auditorium and six classrooms could be built starting in the fall of 2024.

Republican Alan Rummel, who chairs the school board’s finance committee, characterized the supplementary request of $1,152,348 as an “emergency” situation that they learned about just days after the departure of former Superintendent of Schools Andy Bryan on May 9.

Rummel told the commissioners that the need for additional classroom space at Southern Lee was included in the school board’s budget request in the spring of 2022 when it asked for an auditorium and four classrooms. That number grew to six when this year’s budget request was submitted in May. Now, the number has increased again to eight.

In the 2023-24 budget, the commissioners approved a request to construct the auditorium and the six classrooms at Southern starting in the fall of 2024. It also gave its approval to allow the design and development of that construction to start beginning this fall, saving a full year on the building phase of the project.

The school board had hoped to be able to make use of a portion of the county’s proceeds from the state education lottery to fund the purchase of the mobile units but learned two days after the commissioners approved the total county budget on June 5 that state law does not permit lottery funds to be used for buying mobile pods. At a subsequent meeting between Republican school board chair Sherry Lynn Womack and Kirk Smith, Republican chairman of the county commissioners, a plan was agreed upon to ask the board of commissioners to fund a supplemental request for the eight classroom unit.

The crux of the issue is capacity. Southern Lee has a capacity for 1,200 students and had 1,227 in the year just completed. By comparison, Lee County High School has the capacity to handle 1,675 students and had 1,445 at last count. And it was LCHS’s excess capacity that led to a discussion about the merits of purchasing temporary classrooms versus doing reassignments to relieve the overcrowding until the new facilities can be built and opened for use.

Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives Sr. asked whether an eight classroom unit with restrooms is the smallest configuration that could be purchased, and Rummel responded that a unit of four classrooms and restrooms could be purchased for approximately $785,000, about $367,000 less than the eight classroom plan the school board was requesting.

Republican Commissioner Dr. Andre Knecht asked whether the school district had ever addressed reassignments as a way to address overcrowding at Southern Lee and Rummel responded that he was not aware of any considerations that might have been given to shift small numbers of students from one high school to another for that purpose, and didn’t know whether it could be done before the new school year starts in August.

“What I want to know is why someone hasn’t said, ‘hey, we’ve got some extra room over here at this other school. Why hasn’t anyone utilized it yet?'” Knecht asked.

Rummel suggested that doing so might only buy a year’s worth of time, saying that most of the county’s growth is in LCHS’ district.

“I’m surprised we’ve never even looked at it,” responded Knecht.

Reives agreed, saying, “I don’t want us to be spending money we don’t need to spend when we haven’t been doing what we should have been doing all along by looking at the benefits of moving some students from one school to another.”

Republican Commissioner Bill Carver, a former private school headmaster, attempted to drum up support amongst his colleagues for fully funding the school board’s request to purchase an eight classroom pod, but his was the only vote in favor of their original proposal. When that vote failed, a motion to approve funding for a four unit pod with restrooms at a cost of about $785,000 passed on a unanimous vote.

No information was provided to the commissioners on when the units might be installed and brought online for use, but that could be addressed at the next meeting of the school board now set for July 11.