Less than three weeks ago, a Hernando School Board majority was so concerned about creating jobs for the local building industry it agreed to forgo a share of impact fees from new-home construction. Yet, five days ago, the same School Board balked at moving forward with building a new school that would represent a nearly $28 million economic investment in the community.
Job creation should not be the overriding consideration in trying to ease school crowding, but the conflicting positions are indicative of a leadership void on the board that is allowing ambiguity to replace consensus.
Worse, the lack of a definitive direction for school construction means children could be spending more time in portable classrooms than warranted and the district may miss out on projected cost savings from piggybacking on the building of a new high school in western Hernando. That potential exits because board members changed their minds from just two months ago and remain divided over a plan that represents appropriate fiscal management while reducing overcrowding at Explorer K-8 and Spring Hill Elementary schools.
In August, the board met for a workshop and decided, after much debate, to revise its plans for a new K-8 school north of Weeki Wachee for the start of the 2011 school year. The board agreed to trim costs by building the school as a traditional elementary with the shell for the middle school population to be completed later. It would save nearly $5 million in immediate construction costs, but more importantly, it would reduce the annual price of personnel and overhead by about one-third, to $2.3 million, during a time of uncertain state budget allocations.
That prudent thinking, however, was undone by a lack of follow through. Tuesday, the board declined to consider a request to spend $55,000 for a revised architectural and engineering plan for the now-downsized school, leaving the district staff with no indication on how to proceed.
Only board member Pat Fagan offered an explanation by repeating his position from August that he didn't support building the school now and preferred a delay until 2012. Meanwhile, Chairman John Sweeney wondered, without getting an answer, if this meant the K-8 plan he and Sandra Nicholson advocated was back on the table.
"I'm confused," facilities director Roland Bavota confessed. He's not alone. Building the school now was intended to:
• Take advantage of favorable building prices that could escalate if the board delayed construction.
• Save as much as $400,000 by sharing equipment and labor with the high school construction project next door.
• Save the cost of hauling 230,000 cubic yard of dirt from the high school site because it would be used to level the land for the elementary/middle school.
• Create 700 new elementary school slots to reduce the reliance on portable classrooms at Explorer, where 1,938 children are enrolled, and Spring Hill, which has more than 900 pupils, and trigger a chain reaction of relief at six other elementary schools.
The indecisiveness is particularly distressing because of the board's earlier acquiescence to the building industry's call for a reduction or moratorium of impact fees, the largest of which goes for new school construction. It's akin to asking for still more students whose families will be excused from contributing a fair share toward the cost of school construction.
Let the crowding get worse and then pay a higher price later for a new school is not a logical strategy for managing the district's capital construction needs.