Okeechobee School Board budget set at $67.6 million

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee School Board approved a near $67.6 million budget on Thursday and heard reports on student hunger and high teen pregnancy rates.

The budget will collect $11.7 million in local taxes, an increase of $337,079, from this year. The millage will drop .189 mills and was set at 7.202 mills.

One mill equals $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of property value. While the millage rate will drop slightly, some property owners may see an increase in their tax bill if their property value increased.

The budget includes an increase of $805,906 in state aid, a total of $28.7 million.

Spending was up about $1.7 million.

The various school sites and departments like transportation, and juvenile prison programs exceed $40.9 million this year.

A wellness clinic will cost $315,000. Just over $3.9 million would be spent on capital projects. $346,487 will be spent on digital classrooms. Three new school buses will be purchased. $147,000 will be spent for new security cameras.

OHS teacher Samantha Szentmartoni and representatives from State Farm Insurance Gretchen Robertson and Maurissa Tremain were honored for the OHS backpack project that helped feed 30 North Elementary School students on the weekends. This year, with a grant from State Farm, as many as 150 elementary students will be given food for the weekend.

Ms. Szentmartoni said she is really excited because the students will get what they need to be successful in school. She said she had heard from another teacher than an elementary student had asked a teacher for extra food for the weekend because they were not eating properly. She relayed that story to her high school students and they couldn’t believe that happens in Okeechobee.

The North Elementary School students in the program were given six meals every weekend. The new Neighborhood Assist grant through State Farm Insurance will help them feed over 150 students, with all of the five elementary schools involved.

“I’m so proud of my kids. They get so much from this community and it is great for them to give back to these young kids. We impact the lives of these backpack kids and those kids change the lives of my students forever.”

Ms. Szentmartoni said she hopes the community will continue to raise funds after this year so the backpack program can continue.

Student volunteer Aubrie Reister, the president of the OHS National Honor Society, said it was very rewarding to help these kids.

“It’s crazy to see how these kids run to you to get their food. They open up to you and really talk to you about their day and what they’re doing,” she added.

Senior Saif Memom, the vice president of the National Honor Society, said it feels amazing to help his community like this.

“Throughout the years I’ve always wanted to do service projects. I just wanted to give back to those who don’t have anything,” he said.

Local State Farm Agent Gretchen Robertson said she was so thankful and grateful for the neighborhood assist plan.

“State Farm loves to give back to such a worthy cause. I’m honored to be a part of it. It goes to show that one teacher, and one student, can definitely make a difference,” she added.

Dr. Christopher Robshaw reported higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases among our students. He said five Okeechobee teen girls, ages 14-18, out of 100, will become pregnant.

He said the district’s “abstinence only” education policy is ineffective.

He said a comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education program should be used in the schools.

“We are a small county with a big problem. Our kids deserve a better chance and a better future,” he said.

Dr. Robshaw said the teenage pregnancy rate for Okeechobee is 47 per thousand, for girls ages 14-18. This is over twice the state average. He reported there were 65 cases of sexually transmitted diseases reported to teens ages 15-19 last year and 41 cases so far in 2015. In the 20-24 age groups, several new HIV cases have been diagnosed in the past year. Many of these infections could be from sexually activity years ago.

Dr. Robshaw said he doesn’t know that any one entity can solve this problem but the school board is a good place to start.

“Teens do better by hearing these things from a lot of sources. Teens are often convinced their parents don’t know anything,” he suggested.

Dr. Robshaw said the use of condoms should be taught to students because over 50 percent of students are sexually active before they leave high school.

He said teenage girls are also at risk for cervical cancer if they have sex at a young age.

“Let’s try and get a comprehensive program, teach the risk, lessen the risk, tell them this is the safest thing. A lot of kids don’t know how to stand up for themselves. A lot of parents don’t have that conversation with their kids until the horse is out of the barn and halfway down the field,” he said.

Dr. Robshaw said he has several patients who are now parents at a young age when they are not emotionally ready. He said these kids, both mothers and fathers, don’t reach their potential in life as a result.

Dr. John Watson discussed a survey for Okeechobee High and the freshman campus. This survey is required by the state if the district wants to rebuild Okeechobee High.

The Florida Department of Education approved a Castaldi report which recommends no money be spent on several existing buildings at the high school for repairs or improvements.

These buildings are to be demolished and replaced. A total of 1,773 student stations will be built. The report indicates a target enrollment of 1,646 students when the new school opens.

The state forecasts a reduction in student population of between 250 and 375 in the next five years.

The estimated cost is $62.8 million for the new school.

School Board member Malissa Morgan suggested the board host town hall meetings to get input from the public on what they’d like to see at the new high school before they enter the design phase.

The board approved a bid of $41,990 submitted by TBS Electronics, Inc. to purchase 130 new portable radios to improve campus communication and safety.

The district approved their annual financial report. The fund balance was at 13 percent with a reserve fund of $6.09 million.

The board approved a memorandum of agreement with Okeechobee County Education Association 1604 for teachers and classified employees that cover health insurance and additional work hours required by South Elementary.

Each employee will receive a $75 per month reduction in premiums for health insurance if they enter the wellness program. South Elementary teachers will be paid for 8-1/2 hours per day at an hourly rate. Classified employees will receive overtime should they work over 40 hours in a week.
A state committee will visit the campus and determine whether the school is a critical need for the district. From there an architect can be hired to begin the design of the school.

The state appropriation will be sought during the 2017 legislative session.

The building construction must be completed by June 30, 2020.

The board approved changes to the student progression plan. Grades for high school students will be 40 percent from tests, 30 percent for quizzes, and 30 percent for practice work. Grades for elementary and middle school kids will be determined by 40 percent by tests, 30 percent for quizzes, 20 percent for class work and 10 percent from homework.

The plan also changes scores given students for late work when they are present in class. Late work will not be given full credit. The work must be done the following school day when the child is present, and a maximum of 75 percent of the score earned will be awarded the student. All students in honors classes, advanced placement and dual enrollment classes are exempt from this new rule.

The board approved a change to their drug testing policy that requires all employees to take a drug test if they suffer a work-related accident or injury.

A removal of Ospreys on the campus must be done before a new school can be built. An estimated cost is $50,000.

The board changed their hiring policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.

The board also appointed Lauren Myers as assistant principal at OHS.

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy said eight teaching positions remain open in the district. Five of them were created this past week so the district can meet all class size requirements.

Charles M. Murphy is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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