Local Florida districts offer specifics to counter lawmaker school construction cost claims

Published Feb. 2, 2016

On Monday, the Florida superintendents association issued a statement accusing the House Education Appropriations subcommittee of using inaccurate information to paint school districts as poor stewards of taxpayer dollars when it comes to school construction costs.

It's one thing to say it. It's another to back up the statement. And on Tuesday, districts began releasing specific details to counter what they deemed erroneous allegations coming from lawmakers.

The committee's recent report stated that districts overspent mandated caps on student station costs by as much as 67 percent, offering instances from Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando and most every other district statewide.

The Hillsborough school district responded with spreadsheet listing all its school construction projects dating back to 1999, showing that in all but a handful of projects its student station costs came in well below the state caps. Over the years, the spreadsheet indicates, Hillsborough projects came in $635 million under the the limits.

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning, meanwhile, sent a letter to House Appropriations chairman Richard Corcoran and many others in Tallahassee spelling out the fallacies he saw in the presentation. He focused on two projects listed from his district as examples:

"Two specific examples of inconsistencies in Pasco County Schools reporting are found with Schrader Elementary School and the Auto Academy at Wesley Chapel High School. Both schools were reported as exceeding the per student station cap. In reality, neither exceeded the cost per student station.

"The report for Schrader Elementary School listed the student station capacity at 498, when in reality the construction project reflected additions and improvements for a total of 770 students. Instead of a reported per station cost of $27,561, the actual per student station cost was $17,825, well below the $21,194 maximum student station cost. In actuality, this facility generated savings in the amount of $2,594,130 when compared to the Student Station Cost Factors.

"The 8,535 square foot Wesley Chapel High School Auto Mechanics Academy building was designed for students to work on vehicles, not to sit in basic education classrooms. The entire building, by DOE rules, was calculated as basic education space and assessed with an exorbitant per student station cost of $36,119. There is one classroom designed to accommodate 25 students, but the entire building should not be subject to the assignment of student stations in active areas intended to graduate students prepared for high wage, high skilled careers in automotive technology. These two cases represent an example of the invalid assumptions contained in the House Appropriations Report."

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In comments to the Pasco School Board, Browning expressed concerns that lawmakers are aiming to undercut districts' ability to pay for needed construction and maintenance projects. He predicted an amendment to HB 873 to reduce the student station caps, as a precursor to redirecting a portion of district capital projects taxes to charter schools.

"This will cripple districts," Browning said, noting that districts face expensive building requirements such as hardening schools as shelters, following "green" requirements, and providing technology. "It is absurd, and I am a little upset about it."

He called on the board to talk to lawmakers about the problems inherent in the concepts floating around. He said he wants his letter to Corcoran "lying around in the hallways of the Capitol. ... This is a very, very important issue. They've been very quick to play loose with the information when it comes to the amount of money we as districts have spent."

Citrus County district officials also published a response to the House allegations of misspending. In a blog post, School Board chairman Thomas Kennedy offered information he said the lawmakers missed when criticizing a 2007 project at Homosassa Elementary.

"The report showed the 2007 Homosassa Elementary School renovation project which was a school wide remodeling and renovation project. The project was listed as costing $249,652 per student station. Here is the missing information that the report does not give:

"In addition, a new media center, a new cafeteria, a new multipurpose room, a new stage, a new covered play area, and other related areas all sized to meet the needs of the entire school were included in the project costs. The project included the new construction of only one new classroom containing 18 student stations. The cost per student station is grossly inflated because only a small part of the above costs were related to the addition of those 18 student stations. Furthermore, the project received the approval of the Florida Department of Education."

Watch for this issue to keep heating up as the Legislature turns more attention to its budget plans. So far, the Legislature has not taken the steps the superintendents are hoping to stave off, although lawmakers have made similar proposals in the past.

For more details from the districts, view the Hillsborough spreadsheet, Pasco letter and summary, and the Citrus blog post.