Sarasota County School Board to seek revision of state law setting caps for new school construction

A coalition of 20 counties already plans to craft specific language for a revision that can be presented to legislators for the 2017 session

Scott Lempe and Kathie Ebaugh participate. File photo
Scott Lempe and Kathie Ebaugh participate in a School Board workshop. File photo

For years, the Sarasota County School District has been paying higher expenses for various aspects of new school construction in an effort to save money in the long term. Yet, a measure approved by the Florida Legislature this spring includes what Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe calls “rather stiff” penalties for any district that exceeds new caps for construction costs that will take effect on July 1, 2017.

The most severe, he indicated, would be a state takeover of the district’s capital budget. “That’s painful.”

As a result, the School Board, by consensus, agreed during its Aug. 16 workshop to make changing that law one of its priorities for the 2017 legislative session.

Additionally, board members offered support for the district’s planning director, Kathie Ebaugh, in her work as a district representative with the I-4 Coalition. That group, comprising people from 20 districts, plans to craft specific proposed changes to the law that can be presented to legislators next spring. The goal, Lempe and Ebaugh pointed out, is to give districts more flexibility in their spending to achieve future efficiencies.

During the board’s workshop this week, Lempe explained the background of House Bill 7029, pointing out that it prevents a School Board from using any type of funding to exceed the specific limits set for building new elementary, middle and high schools. Board member Frank Kovach asked if the figures pertain only to “vertical construction,” or whether they include everything — even “fill” brought in to make a site buildable and the purchase of property.

“Essentially, it includes everything but the cost to purchase the land,” Lempe replied. However, that could prove problematic for the district’s planning for its next elementary school, Lempe said.

Superintendent Lori White and Chair Shirley Brown participate in discussions on Aug. 16. Rachel Hackney photo
Superintendent Lori White and Chair Shirley Brown participate in discussions on Aug. 16. Rachel Hackney photo

Soon, Lempe continued, staff will bring to the board a proposed contract for the purchase of a new elementary school site within the West Villages development in the vicinity of North Port and Venice. Because “it’s a wet site,” he added, the district will have to pay for mitigation either on the property or off-site. That factor enabled staff to negotiate a lower cost for the property. Therefore, he said, the district is going “to be penalized for the cost of the site work without getting credit for the negotiating we did …”

“Obviously, it’s cheaper to build in some parts of the state than in other parts,” Kovach responded. When the district constructed Atwater Elementary in North Port, Kovach continued, “there were a tremendous amount of costs over and above vertical construction,” including the expense of running water lines and creating roads. “I’m not sure how the state can do apples to apples” in setting construction caps, Kovach added.

Mark Smith, the district’s director of construction services, noted that the new law allows no accommodation for any such factors as those Kovach cited regarding Atwater. With Woodland Elementary, for another example, Smith continued, the district had to bring in fill to raise the entire site 6 feet. That expense was more than $2 million, he added.

In noting examples of how the district has saved money in recent years, Lempe talked of the ice storage system used in new schools. “It’s a very simple one to quantify.”

A 2009 study BRPH architectural and engineering firm of Melbourne undertook of the Atwater Elementary system showed the annual savings at $41,752. With an investment of $305,960, the system would pay for itself in three years, the study said.

School Board member Frank Kovach. File photo
School Board member Frank Kovach. File photo

The additional cost upfront was about $300 per student station, Lempe added. But after three years, he emphasized, staff could see the school would incur no bill for air conditioning. “Reasonable people would look at that and say, ‘This is a smart investment.’”

Another example is the use of ceramic tile instead of vinyl on floors, Lempe noted.

The independent MGT of America study undertaken in 2012 to examine district operations said 100 more custodians would be needed if the School Board had not made certain in design details that reduce the need for maintenance, Lempe added.

“We want to make decisions that pay us back over time and keep paying us and paying us and paying us,” Smith said.

Board member Bridget Ziegler asked if Lempe and Smith could put together a list of such quantifiable examples, so board members could use them as talking points with the Sarasota legislative delegation and other members of the state House and Senate.

“Yes, we definitively can, on a number of items,” Smith told her.

Board member Jane Goodwin pointed out that many legislative decisions in recent years have come in bills that cover multiple new laws. Unfortunately, she said, no member of the current Sarasota legislative delegation sits on an education committee. However, she noted, that situation could change after the November election.

Dealing with the figures

The new law specifies that the maximum cost for a student station in an elementary school built after July 1, 2017 will be $17,952; for a middle school, $19,386; and for a high school, $25,181. The law says those figures will be “adjusted annually to reflect increases or decreases in the Consumer Price Index.”

“At the elementary level,” Lempe continued, “we think we can get close, if not there” to the cap the Legislature has set. With recent middle school construction, the district’s expenses are “a little off” the new state mark, he noted. “It’s the high schools that make me really nervous.”

The district cost for the Booker High School rebuild was about $4,000 higher per student station than the figure that will go into effect in July 2017, he pointed out, and that project did not include an auditorium or a football stadium.

A coalition and associations

Ebaugh then explained her participation in the I-4 Coalition. It comprises not only the counties along Interstate 4, she said, but also those along Interstate 75 and Interstate 95 in the central part of the state, and it includes Collier County and the Jacksonville area for a total of 20. After having met several times since the spring, Ebaugh said, members decided to allow representatives of six of the counties to propose strikethroughs and additions to the new law to make it more flexible. Along with Ebaugh, the planners who will handle that work will be from Volusia, Orange, Seminole, Pasco and Alachua counties. By October at the latest, Ebaugh told the board, a draft of the new language should be complete.

Kathie Ebaugh. File photo
Kathie Ebaugh. File photo

The coalition members feel that if they can offer specific changes to legislators, she said, then they will have a better chance of succeeding in getting the law amended.

“That is such an important way of making changes,” Chair Shirley Brown told her. That will make it easier for the Sarasota board members to handle the issue with the county’s legislative delegation, Brown added. Furthermore, the revisions can be presented to associations that represent school districts, to gain their support for the initiative, Brown said.

“This is probably one of our main [legislative] issues [for the 2017 session],” Brown added, referring to the Sarasota School Board members.

Goodwin concurred.

With no other member voicing a comment, Brown told Ebaugh,

“I’m really glad that you’ve got this coalition working on getting that done.”