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East County Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 6 months ago

School Board of Manatee County considers revising capital plan

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Lack of funding for capital projects causes adjustments to plan.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

East County schools Carlos E. Haile Middle and Tara Elementary could benefit if the School District of Manatee County Board decides to take on debt to fund improvements not included in the district’s five-year plan.

Board members discussed the possibility of reworking the five-year capital plan, along with the possibility of taking on debt, to address schools considered to be in poor condition as well as schools needing to expand in capacity.

In East County, Gene Witt and Tara elementary schools and Carlos E. Haile and Braden River middle schools are considered to be in poor condition.

Gene Witt already is undergoing a renovation and an addition, and Braden River Middle is in the beginning stages of renovation.

Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said Tara Elementary School’s renovation and addition had been removed from the five-year plan as a result of a lack of funding needed to address drainage issues at Palmetto High School.

Although the school district would like to construct an eight-classroom addition at Haile Middle, the project currently is not  included in the capital plan.

Heather Jenkins, the district’s chief financial officer, said the district doesn’t have enough money to cover all the projects the district wants to complete.

“We are short of funding for the next three years,” she said.

The district can use revenue from impact fees, which are one-time charges collected when new construction is completed, to help pay for capacity projects, the projects that increase the number of student stations and square footage at a school.

As of the 2020 fiscal year, the district has about $32.4 million reserved for future school projects.

Saunders said if the board doesn’t want to borrow more money, it could rework some goals at the schools identified as being in poor condition.

“You can do small projects of wings and existing needs that are identified, but you can’t go and retrofit one of those existing in-need facilities because you do not have enough noncapacity dollars up until 2023-2024,” Saunders said.

Capacity projects the district has identified are at Freedom and Tara elementary schools, Haile and Nolan middle schools and Lakewood Ranch High School.

Jenkins said that as the district continues to look at its capital plan, it will prioritize capacity projects based on available funding.

James Golden, a member of the school board, said the district needs to borrow money to complete several capital projects and address the needs.

“It’s going to take a decision that we’re going to borrow money if we’re going to have a significant capital improvement plan that will solve the problems,” Golden said. “We’ve got to move forward with our assurance to the people we are willing to make the hard decisions and the hard choices for the district.”

Board Member Charlie Kennedy agreed.

“We have to talk about taking on debt for some of these projects,” he said. “Otherwise, our hands are ultimately tied. The district is in a solid financial position. When you look at school districts, we have a very low debt load for the most part compared to our peers. I’m comfortable taking on some debt to get some of these projects done.”

Board Member Gina Messenger said the board should not lose sight of the numerous projects already in process, and the district has had a “massive wish list” of projects it would like to complete. Messenger does not want to borrow money and increase the district’s debt service.

“Borrowing is not a hard decision; that’s the easy decision,” Messenger said. “To me, the hard decision is to say, ‘Let’s buckle down. Let’s get through this tough part, so that we can do these things without having that over our heads and not binding future boards.’”

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