OKEECHOBEE — The stakes were high for the second straight year when Okeechobee hosted a state department of education committee Monday trying to convince them to spend state dollars to replace OHS.
Superintendent Kenneth Kenworthy said it is cheaper to rebuild than remodel. The county requested $65 million this year from the state.
Last time the department of education committee said the school had some life left in it and some drainage improvements and repairs would work.
After a presentation at the school board offices, the committee visited the campus.
The school began original construction in 1966. The old building has seen better days. The windows are covered in some classrooms with cardboard as a security measure.
Director of Facilities Brian Barrett said his staff is kept busy on work orders at the school.
Principal Dylan Tedders mentioned poor ventilation and air quality in the buildings.
Another concern was old pipes and poor drinking water for students. One building still has an open air restroom that is in use.
Mr. Kenworthy said the county taxpayers could never raise enough money to pay for a new high school.
“Many kids choose virtual school or home schooling rather than come here.
Look around. Is this a place where you would like to go to school?” he asked.
Mr. Tedders said the OHS gymnasium is too small to house large tournaments that could benefit the wrestling team or other teams.
Two-time state wrestling champion Curtis Tyson said he would not have graduated high school or gone to college without wrestling. He said the town needs a wrestling room. Currently the wrestling team practices in the cafeteria.
“How many of you would attend a restaurant that was used for a locker room the night before,” Mr. Kenworthy added.
Another part of the equation is the use of the freshmen campus. While the building is in good shape, there are other problems with transportation and the loss of valuable instruction time.
The freshman campus gym, built in 1934, has no heat or air conditioning. The freshmen take physical education class in the first semester at OHS. Principal Carol Revels said temperatures exceed 90 degrees in the gym for much of the year.
Mr. Kenworthy said some parents won’t allow their kid to take PE as a freshman because of heat-related concerns.
Mr. Tedders also said the OHS lecture hall needs upgrades with lights, seating, restrooms and dressing rooms.
Another emphasis was a lack of handicapped access in restrooms and second floor classrooms.
The school would also like to expand space for the Junior ROTC.
The OHS parking areas are also in need of new pavement. There was a safety concern for pedestrians walking on campus.
Mr. Barrett said asbestos is likely present in floor tiles and other materials.
The Okeechobee Emergency Operations also sent a letter to support the new school to provide shelters during large storms.
Mr. Tedders also mentioned campus security with the campus surrounded by unguarded cattle pastures and the need for one entry point. He also mentioned poor security cameras.
A new school would also provide new technology and could improve overall academic performance.
Another concern was lack of sheltered walkways throughout the campus for times of lightning and thunder storms.
Three school board members Malissa Morgan, Dixie Ball and Amanda Fuchswanz attended the tour.
Mr. Tedders mentioned again ongoing drainage problems on campus caused by the U.S. 441 four-lane project.
Mr. Kenworthy said a drainage pond would cost $1 million and cause a health hazard with mosquitoes and the threat of students drowning.
Barrett said the Department of Transportation would require a study before they would alter drainage on the highway.
The school officials also mentioned plumbing, wiring, roof and sewer issues.
Mr. Kenworthy said because of our zip code our students are denied opportunities other Florida children enjoy.
“Our kids visit Treasure Coast schools and ask ‘why can’t I have that?’” he said.
The Okeechobee Freshman campus is also not fenced and is a security concern to law enforcement, Ms. Revels said. There is no student parking, no heat and other infrastructure and technology challenges. Students miss 60 hours of instruction each year due to transports back and forth to the high school.
Mr. Kenworthy estimated the costs of repairs to the high school to be about $13.6 million. He compared that to whether to invest in a used vehicle that needs repairs. He also emphasized the district has built several schools without any state funds. This list includes buildings at Central, Everglades and North, the entire Osceola Middle School and the Okeechobee Achievement Academy campus. The district has also pledged 1.5 mills of tax money over three years as a local contribution to the costs.
Mr. Kenworthy said there are only four older high schools currently in use in Florida.
The board also would like to enhance career and technical programs which could improve the graduation rate and lower the dropout rate.
The committee will hold a conference call and will write down each of the five members thoughts on the proposal to receive special state funding of $65 million. They promised a full and fair opportunity to the district and will try to make the best recommendation. They have a September deadline to file their report.
School Board Chairwoman Malissa Morgan said Okeechobee High School is the district’s flagship school and should be replaced.
“We should provide for the community the way we should and we can’t do it on our own,” she said.
Charles M. Murphy is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News