Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Education

Westside Elementary's problems are shared by the entire district

Nothing says run-down like a leaky roof.

Water comes in and a building is failing at its most basic job: keeping out the elements.

And when it happens at a school, it means a structure built for educating kids can't even shelter them.

That's why Westside Elementary School is such a sad case.

Water stains spread across ceiling tiles during storms. Some of those tiles have collapsed under the weight of accumulated water (not, fortunately, when school was in session). To protect against potential water damage, teachers cover computers the way other people cover azaleas on cold nights.

Even more discouraging than this problem is one of the possible solutions, if you can call it that.

Giving up. Closing Westside and walking away.

It's a complicated issue, and not all of the information is in yet. The results of a structural inspection will be ready before the board talks about Westside again, on May 6.

This will show whether the immediate problem is "just" with the surface of the roof and the air-conditioning units that sit on top of it — a $3.7 million problem — or whether it's an even bigger, more expensive, structural problem.

You might hear somewhere out there that the district's real issue is overbuilding. It spent too much on new schools during the boom and now is stuck with paying off loans and maintaining excess property.

There is some truth to that, and Westside's mess brings up one especially relevant example: All of its students could fit neatly into the school with the district's highest proportion of empty desks, Pine Grove Elementary, which is only 37 percent full if you count the portable classrooms on its campus.

The other way to look at this situation, though, is that Hernando's schools are finally prepared for growth. When it starts to arrive again — in about two years, if the district's impact fee consultants are correct — the county won't have to scramble to build schools or cram kids into portables.

Besides, we can't unbuild buildings. Abandoning them isn't feasible either. If you think fixing Westside is expensive, think what it would cost to tear it down and rebuild it.

No, as any homeowner knows, you have to keep up with maintenance or pay more in the long run.

The school system hasn't kept up because, well, the people over there are not poor-mouthing; it really is going broke.

That means it did really need the impact fees that it was denied by the County Commission last month. And there's no doubt that you have a civic responsibility to vote to extend the district's current half-cent sales tax, though you should also be aware that even this will not be nearly enough.

It will generate about $8 million per year — not much if you consider that a thorough renovation of Westside could cost as much as $13 million. Also, it's not the only school that needs work. Not even close.

The total expense of replacing roofs at other schools over the next four years is $13 million, which is itself a pittance compared to the $49 million needed for air-handling systems.

Add in $24 million in technology needs, and you start to realize how the School District's capital needs over the next four years, including paying off debt, come to $210 million.

We have no choice but to pay something close to that amount, and, what's more, we have to figure out how to pay it.

Because we might be able to walk away from Westside, but we can't walk away from the entire district.

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