OKEECHOBEE — A state review team Thursday came to Okeechobee to consider the district’s request for special state funds to build a new high school.
The district will apply for $63 million in funds to replace the existing high school.
OHS principal Dylan Tedders said the new high school is needed. He said half of the students at the Freshman Campus have classes at OHS at least one period per day.
“The transportation to and from the OFC causes students to miss valuable instruction time,” he explained.
Other problems include: computer labs in the library limit access to the library; the cafeteria lacks capacity especially during inclement weather; there is a lack of storage areas; there is mold in the gym and cafeteria; there are not enough bathrooms; there is no heat in the gym; and, the locker rooms are over capacity.
The review team consisted of two state Department of Education administrators, senior planner for the Sarasota County School District Micki Ryan and Sandra Garzon, a Broward County school administrator.
The day began with a two-hour presentation that was followed by a tour of the campus itself.
Superintendent of schools Ken Kenworthy and finance director Joi Tuberville also took part in the presentation.
Mr. Kenworthy said new capacity is not the reason for the new high school. He said they are asking for a new school because the high school itself is in bad shape. He described the existing student stations as inadequate.
It has been noted that student enrollment in the local school district is expected to decline. The 2005-06 student population was 7,829. This year enrollment is 6,678. Projections for the 2019-20 are 5,593, and for 2020-25 are 5,277.
Facility director Brian Barrett said the high school is a drain on maintenance budgets. Drainage is terrible and it would cost $4.5 million to improve. He said renovations would cost many times the cost of rebuilding the school.
The estimated cost of the new school is $63 million.
He went on to say: when it floods, water enters the electric and mechanical rooms and is a safety concern; the fire alarm system is too old; asbestos is present throughout every building; many windows are screwed shut because they don’t work properly; and, water enters three of the newest buildings built in 1993 on a regular basis.
Mr. Barrett said the security system is outdated as are the telecommunications system.
Maintenance employees cost about $55,000 per year.
Mr. Barrett also said the electrical infrastructure does not work for new technology, and there is no infrastructure for a computer lab. He said there are also some American Disabilities Act problems in Building 6, and that paving improvements are greatly needed as are improvements to the sewage lift station.
Mr. Kenworthy said the district has not asked for a lot of special state funds in recent years. The last school built with any state dollars at all was Osceola Middle School in 1995.
He also spoke on the need for hurricane shelter space in the county, and a new high school would greatly help the community.
Currently, county shelters can house 1,822 people. The demand for shelter space alone is 5,293. The American Red Cross suggests the county needs 69,428 additional square feet of shelter space to meet the current needs.
Statistics show the district has 261 homeless students, 1,325 ESE students and 249 students receive mental health counseling. There are 425 students who are home schooled.
The buildings on the campus date back to 1966 and 1968. A vocational building was added in 1973. Most of the buildings are outdated when it comes to electric, phone systems and computer technology.
Other problems include parking and traffic patterns. There are 368 parking spaces. The four lane project of U.S. 441 North added to the campus drainage problems as the road is 2 to 3 inches above the elevation of the three newest buildings.
Mr. Barrett said the fire alarm system is also old and needs to be replaced.
He went on to say large windows leak in many classrooms, and bolstered that statement by explaining that a teacher slipped and was injured because rain water leaked into her classroom from the window.
Other improvements needed include security cameras and handicapped accessibility to the second floor of building 6.
Mr. Barrett also mentioned plumbing, technology, phone systems, energy management concerns on campus and air quality problems as students are breathing in mold and mildew from leaky ceiling tiles.
The roofs on the building are beginning to show wear with a life expectancy due to be up between 2017 and 2019.
In regard to the plumbing system, many bathrooms have been closed because of bad pipes that contain rust, scale and other sediment.
The high school has about 250 significant repairs annually and another 556 work orders for minor repairs. The old heating and AC units are difficult to service, and the lighting in the gym is also considered inadequate.
Okeechobee taxpayers could not afford to pay for the new school on their own.
Mrs. Tuberville explained the certified county tax roll has increased $90 million this year but is the 45th lowest tax base among Florida’s 67 counties at $1.686 billion.
“We can’t even cover the principal (financial) over 25 years on our tax revenue,” she noted.
Okeechobee’s maintenance costs per square foot are $4.38 less than the state average of $5.11. The districts energy costs are also below state average at $0.94 cents per square foot, while the state average is $1.18 per square foot.
The district also has lower transportation costs than the state. The cost per mile in Okeechobee is $2.57 while the state average is $3.59 per mile.
Mrs. Tuberville said there is no other way to generate the money needed for this high school.
“Our taxpayers are not positive or forward thinking when it comes to new taxation. To get something passed would be very difficult,” she said.
Charles M. Murphy is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News