‘These are our schools, yours and mine’

‘These are our schools, yours and mine’

State of Our Schools: Lee students rising to the challenges faced today

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze May 29, 2015 issue

Superintendent Nancy Graham

Superintendent Nancy Graham

Although students today are faced with rigorous expectations to prepare them for a competitive workforce, School District Superintendent Dr. Nancy Graham told those in attendance at the State of Our Schools – Partners in Education breakfast Friday morning that students are rising to the challenge with great success.

With this year’s State of Our Schools theme of “Star Wars” The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower dressed as Yoda and Graham dressed as Princess Leia.

Superintendent Nancy Graham and The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower.

Superintendent Nancy Graham and The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower.

“The summation of what I know . . . Star Wars goes like this – there are good guys and one really bad guy dressed in black. So, I had to ask myself how in the world do I relate all that to education,” she said. “Yoda has very few words to say. And when he says them, they are received as profound and lasting.”

Graham’s speech was broken down into seven lessons shared through Yoda.

Her first lesson, “you must unlearn what you have learned,” touched upon the difficult tasks with which educators are faced. Graham said most people have gone to school and many want to serve as local experts in running a school.

“Though it is comfortable for us to relate current life to our own experiences, it would be really helpful in the case of public education for individuals to unlearn or at least suspend personal experiences and see education for what it is today,” she said. “Heavily legislative, often politicized and insufficiently funded.”

Public education has changed in terms of requirements for high school graduation. Graham said years ago students completed their high school math requirements after finishing algebra one.

“You all know those same folks never had to pass a standardized test or end of course exam in math, history or science,” she said. “It’s likely in most cases those same people are reaping the benefits of a well-lived professional life. But today, none of those same people would be able to earn a high school diploma based on the current requirements facing our freshman class, the class of 2018.”

This year’s senior class had to earn at least a half credit of online courses to receive a high school diploma.

When adding rigorous, challenging and prescriptive academic expectations to life experiences of students that are already faced without a stable family unit, homelessness, poverty, English as a second language, neighborhood violence, mental illness and physical or emotional abuse the chance to become a kid may never come, she said.

Through all of those difficulties, Graham said there is a positive note. In 2014, Lee County achieved the highest reading learning gains in its history; performed above the state average in points earned for the state grading system; improved the district grade and this year’s high school graduates earned a combined $50 million in scholarships.

Her second lesson was titled “difficult to see, always in motion is the future, which focused on predicting what students might need to be prepared beyond their kindergarten through 12th grade education.

“As today’s educators, we are charged with preparing our students for the workforce. A workforce full of jobs yet to be defined,” Graham said. “This is the new way of work . . . preparing the future for the unknown. This is why we must focus on teaching our students how to think and problem solve. To look at math and science and literature from angles and many lenses.”

The future for the students is why the district focuses on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – as well as STEAM, because Lee County also includes the arts in its schools. Comprehensive high schools, which allow students to earn diplomas and industry certifications, are also offered to prepare students for the workforce.

Graham said the district also invests in such student leadership programs as JROTC, where Lee County ranks as the second largest in the country.

Another lesson, “truly wonderful the mind of a child” spoke to the district’s responsibility of acknowledging the minds they reach through relationships and programs to nurture students.

“You think Yoda stops teaching just because a student does not want to hear – a teacher Yoda Is” shared information about the teachers of Lee County.

Graham said next year the school district will employ just under 6,000 teachers, 2,000 of whom have a master’s degree or higher. She said it is no easy task to hire and retain the best talent because the School District of Lee County is the biggest employer from Tampa to Miami.

“We are back to a growth pattern of an additional 1,500 to 2,000 students a year,” Graham said. “We are projected to be in that mode for the next 10 years.”

The lesson also shared information about the newest career opportunities for teachers. A teacher leader spends part of their day teaching and the other half coaching other teachers, which Graham said has been successful.

Grants through the National Education Association have also helped in closing the learning gap in Lee County. What started as assistance for 10 schools, will have reached 30 schools in 2016 with the grant.

“When 900 years old you reach, look as good as you will not,” highlighted the capital budget funds decrease. Graham said the combination of lower property taxes, reduced impact fees and reduced funding from the state in the past five years resulted in $656 million loss to the district’s capital budget.

“As a district and a community, we can no longer pretend the losses have no impact as we face a growing number of students,” she said. “These are our schools, yours and mine. Our schools need to be maintained while new schools will ultimately have to be built to house the children that we know are coming.”

Another lesson titled “Try no. Do or do not. There is no try,” shared the importance of partnerships and their involvement.

“All in means more than just writing a check . . . though we are grateful for your financial support. In this partnership all in is about being an advocate of our schools, correcting misperceptions when you hear them or sharing the positives when others may want to be negative,” Graham said. “All in means we make promises to one another and we keep them.”

Some of those promises include a balance budget without using reserved funds; measurable three year strategic plan; nationally credited school district ; increase learning gains among all groups of students; at least one school counselor at every school; 325 fewer required tests; forward movement with technology including the start of one-on-one devices for students; C to a B district and on the way to becoming an A district, as well as continuing to work with the community to keep its vision.

She closed her speech by asking the audience to “pass on always what you have learned.”

“The more who know more the better and stronger the partnership becomes among us,” Graham said. “Our doors are open to you as we move forward and I encourage you to visit our schools. I will personally take you.

‘Total disbelief’

‘Total disbelief’

Veteran from the Cape wins boat raffle

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze May 29, 2015 issue

Frank DePace

Veteran Frank DePace won the 2015 Wounded Warrior Anglers boat raffle. 

A charitable drawing likely sent a Cape Coral resident reeling as his name was drawn from 4,000 raffle tickets at the Olde Fish House Marina Saturday, making him the winner of the 2015 Wounded Warrior Anglers boat raffle.

The reality of his win hit home Wednesday morning as he signed the papers for his very first boat at Fort Myers Marina.

“Every day I’m coming back down to earth,” Frank DePace said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

He won a 2015 NauticStar 2110 Sport Bay with 150 horsepower four stroke and magic tilt trailer.

Fort Myers Marine General Manager Colinda Helveston sits with Cape Coral resident and veteran Frank DePace on his brand new boat. Also pictured: Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and President Dave Souders, Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and Vice President Judy Souders and Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and Treasurer Tate Hutchinson.

Fort Myers Marine General Manager Colinda Helveston sits with Cape Coral resident and veteran Frank DePace in his brand new boat. Also pictured: Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and President Dave Souders, Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and Vice President Judy Souders and Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and Treasurer Tate Hutchinson.

Tate Hutchinson, Wounded Warrior Anglers co-founder and treasurer, said he could not think of a better person to have won the boat. He said he thinks a lot of people were in tears the night the name was drawn for the boat raffle.

“It was awesome to see a fellow soldier that was there to win it . . . it was pretty awesome and fantastic,” Hutchinson said.

DePace joined the Army in 1966 and served until 1981. He said since he was going to be drafted anyway, he elected to be enlisted giving him the choice of which branch of military to join.

“It was an experience of a lifetime. One that I will never forget,” DePace said.

He and his wife, Marsha, moved to Cape Coral on May 1, 2014 from Connecticut. He heard about the Wounded Warrior Angler organization after meeting President Dave Souders and Capt. Jim Conant at Pineland Marina

“They invited me to come to attend one of their meetings. I did and have been there ever since,” DePace said, who is now a member of the organization. “Being a veteran myself – I fought in Vietnam – it’s an organization that there is a lot of camaraderie and a lot of the individuals know how you feel and we care about each other. It’s a great organization.”

As a way to contribute to the organization, he purchased six boat raffle tickets never thinking he was going to win. When his name was called Saturday evening during the 3rd annual Redfish Shootout in memory of Spec. Michael Plath, he was in “total disbelief.”

Hutchinson, who takes his 10-day yearly vacation around the tournament’s schedule, said the boat raffle is the center point of the organization’s fundraising efforts throughout the year. He said the proceeds from the boat raffle allow the organization to hold the Warrior and Caregiver Retreats, as well as helps pay for a boat to raffle off the following year.

In addition, Hutchinson said the boat is also “wrapped,” portraying the military and all the branches of service, which excites people that were in the military and still are in the military.

DePace said Fort Myers Marine hopes to have his boat ready next Wednesday. He hopes to put the boat in the water that day or Thursday.

Fort Myers Marine General Manager Colinda Helveston sits with Cape Coral resident and veteran Frank DePace on his brand new boat. Also pictured: Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and President Dave Souders and Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and Treasurer Tate Hutchinson.

Fort Myers Marine General Manager Colinda Helveston sits with Cape Coral resident and veteran Frank DePace in his brand new boat. Also pictured: Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and President Dave Souders and Wounded Warrior Anglers Co-Founder and Treasurer Tate Hutchinson.

Forever Bright

Forever Bright

Forever Bright 

Pink Heals unveils new vehicle dedicated to young cancer victim from Cape Coral

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze May 19, 2015 issue

The legacy of a young Cape Coral girl who lost her battle to cancer earlier this year will live on as the newest pink fire truck travels throughout Southwest Florida baring her name while bringing comfort to others who are faced with cancer.

“This is huge,” Amy Castro said, adding that her daughter’s name, Amiyah, is now on a truck that travels all over bringing awareness to pediatric cancer.

Pink Heals

The Matlacha/Pine Island Fire Control District donated its very first fire truck Saturday afternoon to the Pink Heals Southwest Florida Chapter at Shrimp Shack in Fort Myers. Engine 20, a 1988 fire truck, was donated in memory of Firefighter Dale Jedlick for his 24 years of service of maintaining the truck and keeping it in good shape.

The donation, Chief Joe Marzella said, was a great opportunity because rather than the engine rusting away, they were able to give it another life by repurposing its use.

Engine 20, he said became one of the M/PIFCD reserves after Iona McGregor Fire Protection & Rescue Service District donated a truck to it.

“We treat the trucks as rolling memorials,” Pink Heals Southwest Florida Chapter President Michael Piggott said.

Amiyah Castro 2

The chapter’s mission is to support women and their families while raising awareness for all types of illnesses.

The conversations began almost two years ago with the Pink Heals Southwest Florida Chapter, which resulted in an emotional dedication as South Trail Fire District trucks and an ambulance led the procession line followed by “Suzy,” the first Pink Heals truck for the chapter and “Amiyah,” the newest addition.

Pink Heals Southwest Florida Chapter President Michael Piggott offers comfort to Amy Castro during a dedication Saturday afternoon at Shrimp Shack in Fort Myers.

Pink Heals Southwest Florida Chapter President Michael Piggott offers comfort to Amy Castro during a dedication Saturday afternoon at Shrimp Shack in Fort Myers.

During the dedication, Piggott said although it was extremely tough naming the new engine, somebody who contributed a great deal to the community instantly came to mind. He said Amiyah Castro, a young 7-year-old, had so much spirit.

“She was very carefree,” her mother Amy said, adding that she was sassy and bright.

The front of the fire truck was revealed during the dedication, reading “Shine Bright Like Amiyah,” which was followed by many tears of those who attended the event. The family, Amy, Pablo, Kayden and Khyleigh Castro were given the first opportunity to sign the newly painted pink truck before others in the audience shared touching words of remembrance of the young girl.

The Castro family also received a $1,000 donation from Pink Heals during the dedication. Amy said although the check donation was great, the truck meant so much more.

Amiyah was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer on April 3, 2014 and passed away on Jan. 24, 2015 at the age of 7.

Castro family

Amy said her daughter was always worried about her friends and always knew that it would be okay.

“She prayed for everybody,” Amy said.

Piggott, who is a banker, decided to start the Southwest Florida chapter in November 2013 after learning more about the organization and witnessing the national Pink Heals chapter stroll through the area on its tour more than five years ago. In February 2014, the group acquired their first fire truck from Crescent City, Florida, which bares the name Suzy.

Piggott said any tax paying agency, such as the police department, EMS and the school district, can get involved in the chapter.

“We would paint it pink,” he said of police cars, ambulances and school buses.

In addition to Suzy and Amiyah making an appearance at events in the area, they are also used for home visits and school visits. He said when a home visit is made the local fire, police and EMS get involved in the caravan of vehicles.

The lights are flashing and the sirens are blasting when they roll up to the location, Piggott said to grab the community’s attention. He said most people that have cancer keep it to themselves, which is another reason they do home visits.

When the pink fire trucks roll through, neighbors come out of their homes and learn that someone next door has cancer, which turns into another arm of support.

Piggott said many times the home visit is a surprise for the survivor and organized by the family.

All the money the chapter raises remains local to help families in need in Southwest Florida.

“We want the money to stay here,” he said.

For more information about the chapter, visit http://www.pinkhealsswfl.org.


Gear Up Florida cyclists

Gear Up Florida cyclists

Special Populations welcomes 

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze May 12, 2015 issue

Almost 100 members of Special Populations, cheering and holding handmade signs, welcomed 21 bicyclists Monday afternoon at the Sun Splash Family Waterpark pavilion.


Nina Strickland organized the event for the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, which is part of the cycling group Gear Up Florida, which is organized by The Ability Experience. The group of cyclists raises awareness and funds for people with disabilities.

“I have a special needs daughter,” she said of her daughter Alexandra Blythe.

Strickland said her daughter loves going to Special Populations because of her friends who also attend the program. She said her daughter has the opportunity to participate in different activities that provide life skills.

“This is her life,” she said. “She can’t wait to come here.”

Last year the Pi Kappa Phi members stopped at Special Populations for the first time during their Gear Up Florida cycling trek. The bike ride raised funds for Special Population, which allowed the organization to purchase trikes.

Sara Sansone, Special Populations supervisor, said she likes the ride’s mission statement of drawing awareness to disabilities.

“They will be ambassadors,” she said of the cyclists.

Sansone said they will have the opportunity to touch others by sharing the experiences they had Monday, as well as learn more about people with disabilities.

Strickland said her son, who is a Pi Kappa Phi member, is the reason her family became involved in organizing the stop in Cape Coral.

“My son is always involved in special needs,” she said.

Strickland’s son, Stephen Blythe, a graduate of Ida Baker High School, began Baker Buddies while attending school to offer such events as bowling and ice cream socials to engage interaction with special needs students.

“It has exploded since then,” he said of the club.

After graduating high school, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee and joined the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity his freshman year. In August 2011, Blythe decided to become more involved by participating in Journey of Hope, a bike ride that departed from San Francisco June 9, 2011, and ended in Washington D.C. Aug. 10, 2011. He said the trip included 60 cycling days with an average of 80 to 85 miles a day.

Each cyclist had to raise a minimum of $5,500. Blythe raised $9,100 for the ride. He said the great thing about the ride is when they stopped for “Friendship Visits” a grant was given that day with the money they raised.

“You do see it’s being put to good use,” he said.

Blythe said the life changing experience was the perfect college experience. The men he rode with from San Francisco to Washington D.C. became his close friends. The most difficult part of the experience was saying goodbye to friends after spending 70 straight days with them.

Shey Siegert, now a junior in college left Idaho to attend college in Alabama.  He became involved in the Pi Kappa Phi two years ago because he wanted to get involved in a fraternity that touched upon academics, social and philanthropy. Siegert said the fraternity spoke to him because he had a friend in high school that had a brother with Down Syndrome.

“He was always happy to see me,” Siegert said of the experience that encouraged him to continue to hang out with others with disabilities.


This year, 21 cyclists from 10 to 15 different states and eight crew members are participating in the Gear Up Florida ride. Siegert said some of the cyclists traveled from California, Iowa, Ohio, Arizona, Alabama and Florida.

Those who participated in Gear Up Florida had to raise a minimum of $2,500, which enabled the group to provide a grant of more than $50,000 to Special Populations before leaving Monday afternoon.

Siegert said he raised $2,600 by reaching out to alumni, starting an email campaign, making phone calls and starting a Facebook page. He said everyone who made a donation through Facebook will receive a journal that includes daily photographs and excerpts.

The ride began Sunday, May 10 with 95 miles from Miami to Clewiston.

The cyclists arrived at Special Populations around 11:30 a.m. Monday for a “Friendship Visit.” After being greeted, the cyclists gathered under the pavilion to hear Cape Coral City Councilmember Rick Williams read a proclamation declaring Monday, May 11 as “Gear Up Florida Day.” The cyclists then handed out slices of pizza to the members of Special Populations before sitting down and joining them for conversations.


“I have never been to a Friendship Visit,” Siegert said. “It’s pretty amazing . . . having a great conversation with everyone.”

Sansone said since the cyclists stopped during the time they offer programs, the fraternity members had the opportunity to dance, take a walk and play games with those who attend Special Populations.

“For our group, they get to meet college students,” she said of the learning and growth experience.

After leaving Special Populations, the cyclist traveled to Lee County Arc in Fort Myers. Strickland was having the team over for dinner Monday night before they headed to Sarasota Tuesday morning. The ride will conclude Saturday, May 23 in Tallahassee after visiting 13 cities, for a total of 866 miles.

Nick Julian, who is the logistics coordinator for the ride, said he makes sure the roads they travel are safe and plans events during the ride.

“To be able to engage this way shows how great Florida is,” he said of the Monday event.

Vans travel with the cyclist to ensure they are safe and have what they need throughout the ride. Siegert said every 10 miles the vans will park and provide the cyclist with water and food while they are still riding. He said about every 10 miles he will eat a Cliff bar and about every 20 miles will hydrate with water.

In addition to the vans, Siegert said the cyclists also look out for each other during the ride with open communication. He said if one of them sees a piece of medal, they yell out debris and left or right.

“I really love my country”

Army intelligence photog to speak Saturday

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze March 13, 2015 issue

A U.S. Army intelligence photographer, who served in the 1st Infantry Division “The Big Red One,” will speak at the Northwest Regional Library on Saturday about her experience.

Rebeca Brown, who moved to Southwest Florida from Los Angeles 10 months ago, joined the Army in 1980 and served until 1984.

“I wanted to join the Army because I wanted to travel the world and take photos,” she said. “I really love my country.”

Brown recalls that one of the biggest issues in the 1980s was a couple female congresswomen saying women should not be a part of the military.

“I was raised that you could do whatever you want in life,” she said. “I was part of the feminist movement that helped women work in nontraditional positions.”

As an intelligence photographer Brown had many jobs. She flew in planes and helicopters and took aerial photographs of the terrain for the government, as well as photographs of the ground terrain in auxiliary tanks.

Brown flew in the SR71, which had cameras in the belly of the plane. She recalls flying over hostile combatants while in the SR71.

“You put on this jumpsuit and put on a diaper,” she said. “In a blink of an eye you could go anywhere to take photos.”

Some of the aerials were, both in the air and on the ground. of the Russian borders. She also took pictures of large community areas through which people would walk.

Large bodies of water and related terrain were also photographed, in case troops had to go through.

One of the experiences that really stuck out from Brown was while she was stationed in Germany. She spent time with the auxiliary unit riding in tanks to take photos.

“If we had a conflict and NATO had to move in the troops, we would need to know the depth of how to get our troops over,” Brown said.

During that time she also took aerial reconnaissance over the Berlin Wall.

The veteran also enjoyed taking photographs of Hitler’s bunkers. She said not only did she have to take photographs of the artwork and other common items, but she also had to make duplicates of his horrible crimes for the government.

Some of those photographs included the guillotine and shooting of Jewish people against the wall.

Brown, who had top secret clearance, said there were times she was not in uniform when she went to other countries.

The government would drop a portable photo lab by helicopter wherever she was, so she could process the film and give it to one of the generals.

“It was a good experience, an awesome experience for me,” Brown said.

After the military, she became a law enforcement officer for the state of California. From there she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, as well as a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business.

While in California she worked as a specialist with children between the ages of 5 to 18 who had signs of becoming serial killers. Brown said she would teach them empathy, love and how to connect to the community, so they would have some type of connection.

“Then I became a program director with Phoenix Health in Los Angeles for the probation department,” she said.

Brown created and implemented programs that dealt with such issues as substance abuse and cognitive behavior. She said she would be contacted to go to the prisons. Brown also would hire staff for youth camps and teach them how to connect with kids and mentor them, so they would sustain goals to attend college.

She is currently a member of the Cape Coral VFW Post #8463, Cape Coral VFW Post #8463 Honor Guard, American Legion Post #90 and the American Legion Riders Florida Chapter #90. She is also a volunteer at the Pine Island Museum.

“Eventually I will start again, either try to work with veterans and kids,” Brown said.

Brown will speak at the Northwest Regional Library at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 14.

“I am hoping I get a good turnout,” she said.

In addition to sharing her experience, Brown also wants to share the message that as long as you dream about want you want in the future, you always have a goal to work for. She said it is also very important to teach kids about patriotism.

Brown is speaking on behalf of the SW FL. Military Museum & Library.

County to consider raising impact fees

County to consider raising impact fees

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Feb. 27, 2015 issue

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners will begin its discussions about a possible impact fee increase this Tuesday during a public hearing.

“I can only hope that it goes well,” Commissioner Frank Mann said of the public hearing. “I’m nervous to say the least.”

The current fees are set at 20 percent of the estimated cost of constructing such things as roads, parks and schools necessitated by growth.

Building Industry Association Executive Vice President Brenda Thomas said they would love the impact fees to remain at 20 percent because they feel the market is still emerging.

“People who have been struggling for more than five years to find a job are now going to be threatened. That is hard to take,” she said.

The biggest issue the Building Industry Association is having right now is the uncertainty of where the impact fee rate will fall.

“Builders are in contracts with homeowners right now and they don’t know what to put in the contract,” Thomas said of impact fees.

The fees were reduced 80 percent two years ago when the commission agreed to a temporary reduction to spur the economy.

“The reason we changed it (was) while the building industry was on its back, but those days are gone,” Mann said. “Permits for construction are flying off the shelves. The industry is very healthy and alive and the impact fees need to be restored.”

The starting point for Tuesday’s hearing would bring the charges on new construction up to 45 percent of cost or more than double the current amount charged.

While commissioners will start their conversation at the 45 percent rate, county staff is recommending that the commission provide a 15 percent discount, or 85 percent of cost, which would bring the fee from $2,900 to $11,000 on a new home.

If the county commissioners approve 45 percent impact fees, Thomas said it will have a very negative impact on the building industry at this point.

“At 45 percent, you are looking at almost a $3,200 increase for a single family home, depending on which is the basis point for 45 percent,” she said.

Mann said he is in favor of restoring back to 100 percent because Lee County desperately needs revenue for new infrastructure because thousands of people are moving into the area and permits for new homes are up again.

Thomas, on the other hand, said although they are seeing an increase, they are not on “fire yet” regarding the number of permits pulled. She said a lot of the permits have been for multi-family apartments and commercial properties.

Mann said where ever he goes, he has 100 percent support on his position from the residents of Lee County.

“I knew it was the right thing to do from the beginning,” Mann said, adding that overwhelming support from the community it only reaffirms his belief.

Mann voted against the one-year reduction with the option for a second year in March 2013.

At 100 percent, including a cost adjustment, the fee would be $12,985 to build a new home. At 85 percent the fee would be $11,116 for a single family home. Currently, at 20 percent, the fee is $2,942.

“It worked very well for 20 years, so why would we change that?” Mann asked. “It needs to be a part of our revenue stream now. Impact fees have never kept anyone from moving here. The 20 years we have had them was the fastest expansion period in the history of the county.”

Mann said he does not see how it is fair to ask residents of Lee County to subsidize its growth requirements when there is a perfect example of a program that works – impact fees.

“It’s only fair that growth pays for growth, and the new people coming here pay for the roads and school classrooms they are demanding,” he said.

School Board member Steve Teuber said the school board voted unanimously to support 100 percent restoration.

“We had three things happen over the last five years, which was kind of the perfect storm,” he said.

Property values declined over those five years, the school district’s capital millage was cut from 2.0 mills to 1.5 mills and the County Commission reduced impact fees, including those for schools, by 80 percent.

Teuber said $640 million was lost in potential income. He said the district is carrying a $450 million capital debt with an annual debt service of $42 million.

“We need money from any source possible,” Teuber said.

He said if the school district gets $9 million from impact fees, they still need $300 million more.

“Nine million isn’t going to make the road,” Teuber said. “We need about $40 million a year.”

Even with an increase in impact fees, the school board’s needs still are not met.

“I certainly know that whatever the Board of County Commissioners do is not going to be the answer,” he said.

With that said, Teuber expressed that the school board wants the county commission to do what they feel is right based on their collaborative work.

“If they give us 55 percent, we are going to say thank you very much,” he said.

Thomas said the biggest issue is the commissioners have a big infrastructure need in Lee County and Southwest Florida. She said impact fees are just a small portion of solving that problem.

The impact fee covers only the new infrastructure that would have to be built to accommodate additional population.

By law, the money collected from impact fees cannot be used for maintenance or regular government operations. The money can only be used to add capacity. In other words, the funds can be used to add a lane to a road, but not to repave a road. They can be used to construct a new bridge but not repair an old bridge.

Thomas said the amount of money that it would take to fix road congestion could not be solved with impact fees. She said the traffic congestion on 41 or on the way to the beach could not be fixed with impact fees.

“Many issues we are facing cannot be solved with one solution,” Thomas said. “You don’t want to solve a problem by hurting someone else. A true community solves the problem together.”

Thomas said another issue with raising impact fees is the effect it will have on the valuation of all properties in Lee County.

She said the issue at hand is how do they manage growth in a productive way that leads to a better, more user friendly community without taking the No. 1 economic drivers and throwing them under the bus.

“Raising impact fees to the maximum will not fix the problem,” Thomas said.

The board will meet at 9:30 a.m. in the Commission Chambers, 2120 Main St,. Fort Myers.



Italian ‘water circus’

Italian ‘water circus’

Italian ‘water circus’ sets Cape Coral performances

Published in the Cape Coral Daily Breeze Feb. 5, 2015 issue

Cirque Italia, an Italian water circus, will return to Cape Coral at the end of February for three performances off of Northeast Pine Island Road.

Cirque Italia owner Manuel Rebecchi was born and raised in Milan, Italy. In an effort to preserve his family’s traditional European style circus, Moira Orfei Circus, he crafted a new brand, Cirque Italia, and brought it to North America in August 2012.

hand to hand- final“I want to see people have fun, enjoy the show, and go out with a smile and the desire to come back,” Rebecchi said in a prepared statement.

The performances will take place on Friday, Feb. 27, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 28, at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 1, at 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. The white and blue tent will go up at 917 N.E. Pine Island Rd.

Cirque Italia is celebrating its third birthday with some new talents.

Chelcie Carpenter, a 23-year-old from Savannah, Ga., joined Cirque Italia four weeks ago.

verticalli 1- final“It’s fantastic,” she said of the show. “The stage is very unique and amazing. It is like no other circus around with the way that it raises to the ceiling and the water that falls from it and the lighting it has.”

The 35,000 gallon water stage, which was custom designed in Italy, is located in the center of the white and blue tent. The 40-foot Broadway, circular-style stage, is 4 feet high with a stage lid that lifts 35-feet up in the air during the show as rain descends and a fountain dances with each performance move.

Carpenter’s performance includes an aerial silks act where she hangs down from the top of the tent. During her act she climbs to the top of the tent while wrapping the silks in a series of knots around her body.

“After that I do a pose and let my body roll and drop and catch in knots at the end of the fabric,” she said.

Her interest in the aerial act took shape two years ago because of the amount of strength and grace it includes.

“It’s kind of like ballet in the air,” Carpenter said.

Although her experience with the circus began four years ago with on and off contracts, Carpenter said she really enjoys Cirque Italia.

“It’s one of the more beautiful shows around and it focuses a lot on the performers and the artistry and what the people actually do,” she said. “The owners are great people to work for. It is overall a great experience and a great place to work.”

mermaid 3- FinalOther acts include musical clowns, the Verticali Act that sing while performing upside down, the Laserman Act that performs optical illusions and hypnotism, the Twin Sailors performing magic in the air, the Duo Aerial Ring and a Mermaid that emerges from her shell.

For more information about the circus, visit http://www.cirqueitalia.com or send an email to office.cirqueitalia @gmail.com.

Tickets, which range from $10 to $50, can be purchased on its website or by calling (941) 704-8572.

County eyes impact fee hike

County eyes impact fee hike

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Feb. 5, 2015 issue

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners will begin its discussions about a possible impact fee increase during a public hearing scheduled for March 3.

The current fee is set at 20 percent of the estimated cost of constructing such things as roads, parks and schools necessitated by growth. The starting point for next month’s hearing would bring the charge on new construction up to 45 percent of cost or more than double the current amount charged.

District 4 Commissioner Brian Hamman said the analogy he uses for impact fees is it is a “set up charge,” or an “activation fee” for joining a community when building a new home. The impact fee covers the new infrastructure they would possibly have to build to accommodate additional population.

By law, the money collected from impact fees cannot be used for maintenance or regular government operations. The money can only be used to add capacity.

In other words, the funds can be used to add a lane to a road, but not to repave a road. They can be used to construct a new bridge but not repair an old bridge.

“These are supposed to be fees that cover the impact of growth and not regular maintenance,” Hamman said.

The dollars collected from impact fees also have to be expended in the same district where the money was collected.

“If you are going to collect fees in Estero, you have to spend that impact fee in Estero,” he explained. “It is the most volatile of funds because they rely strictly on the economy and construction being good.”

Hamman said there does not need to be high impact fees to generate a lot of revenue.

“You will encourage more growth and more building with lower fees and more revenue to build infrastructure with,” he said.

The impact fees collection rate has the potential of going from 20 percent to 100 percent of cost on March 13 if the Lee County Board of County Commissioners does not take further action as that is when the reduction to 20 percent of cost is set to “sunset.”

At 100 percent, including a cost adjustment, it would add a fee of $12,985 to build a new home and $11,116 for a single family home at the 85 percent rate. Currently, at 20 percent, the fee is $2,942.

“If you were to let the reduction expire and let the fee jump up to $13,000, you are adding $10,000 worth of cost to the house,” Hamman said. “The builder is going to pass it onto the consumer. That cost is going to hurt a middle class home. I am trying to think of how we can keep housing affordable for families that want to build a house.”

While commissioners will start their conversation at the 45 percent rate, county staff is recommending that the commission provide a 15 percent discount, or 85 percent of cost. He said at 85 percent, the fee would go from $2,900 to $11,000 on a new home.

“I think you would slow down the market with that kind of increase,” Hamman said. “My position is that a 55 percent reduction actually means a $7,000 saving to a middle class family. That could mean a difference for families of whether or not they continue to build a home.”

Brian Rist, immediate past president of the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association said it is obvious that Lee County needs money, but he does not think impact fees are the correct way of going about generating the funds.

“There are other ways of generating revenue that seem to me to be more logical,” he said. “Like if you are going to build roads, why not add a few cents to the gas tax?”

Rist said the problem with impact fees is the charge is only assessed to new construction. Currently, 80 percent of the homes being built are $200,000 or less.

In regard to impact fees to build schools, Rist said the majority of people buying new homes in Lee County are moving from up north after their kids are grown and out of the house.

“Impact fees don’t affect people going to school,” Rist said. “But when real estate changes hands, that is everybody.”

Rist believes the commission is going to set the impact fees anywhere from 45 percent to 85 percent of cost.

“At this time new construction is just starting to return to a good level. It is definitely improving,” he said. “But it is just starting to recover and things like this could set us back again.”

One solution Rist believes would help would be through a real estate transfer fee. He said if a smaller amount of money is paid when real estate changes hands it would make more sense.

“When real estate goes down, when the economy goes down, people don’t buy new houses, but real estate constantly changes hands,” he said.

In March 2013, Hamman said the county commission decided to temporarily reduce the impact fee rate by 80 percent to help jumpstart the local economy.

“That is really largely because our economy in Lee County is driven by growth and new construction,” he said. “Since 2007, we really saw no new growth. Permitting was dead. People were out of work. Long-time businesses were closing down.”

Hamman said the commissioners really could not find a way to climb out of the recession.

Single family permits pulled went from more than 9,000 per year at the peak of the construction boom to 373 permits in 2011.

Lee County is starting to see the rise in permits pulled with 933 last year.

Although the growth is starting to appear, Hamman said they are only about a third of where they were before 2000. He said they were at a sustainable growth rate they could handle at about 2,600 permits a year.

No impropriety: School super cleared

No impropriety: School super cleared

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Jan. 15, 2015 issue

“Waste, fraud and financial mismanagement” allegations made against Superintendent Nancy Graham in December were dismissed late last week, after a third party attorney found no evidence to support the complaints.

The School Board of Lee County then concluded that no further investigation is needed and no action needs to be taken on the findings during its Jan. 13 meeting.

Board Member Steve Teuber said Thomas Gonzalez, of Thompson, Sizemore, Gonzalez and Hearing, investigated the complaint against Graham very thoroughly.

The School District of Lee County received a letter from the Florida Department of Education Inspector General Office on Dec. 8, regarding allegations made in connection to Graham’s June 27, 2013 reorganization plan. Those allegations were made by former employee Alberto Rodriguez. The letter stated that the plan mislead the board by “embellishing the savings outlined in the plan,” as well as that Graham “obligated and expended Title I funds without prior approval.”

“We hired a third party,” Teuber said. “An unbiased attorney that was hired to do the investigation with no skin in the game and he did the right thing.”

Teuber said he called the complainant, Rodriguez, and refuted everything.

“There was nothing there again for the 11th time,” he said.

Teuber said every complaint has been investigated and that related public records requests from this particular individual have absorbed “80 percent” of district staff’s time dedicated to public records and requests.

“Public records are there to serve a public purpose,” Teuber said during the meeting. “But at some point you have to take into consideration the burden it has put on our taxpayers and the resources it has taken.”

According to Gonzalez’s Jan. 8 report, the evidence presented by Rodriguez does not “support the allegations that have been referred for investigation.”

His report stated that evidence clearly shows that shortly after Graham was named superintendent, she presented a plan for the organization of her administration. Gonzalez further stated that as part of Graham’s presentation, a document was shown of the costs, savings of her plan.

“The document was not intended to show that the plan had saved the district any particular amount nor was the organization plan driven by considerations of cost,” Gonzalez wrote in his investigation report.

His investigation revealed that Graham did not embellish or mislead the school board about savings from her organizational plan.

Rodriguez’s letter to the inspector general included a complaint that addressed Graham’s reorganization plan saving the district nearly $1 million. Those savings, according to Rodriguez, were the result of eliminating three zone managers from maintenance, three zone coordinators and seven zone teachers on assignment.

According to Gonzalez’s investigation, “the savings related to the zone manager, coordinator and teacher on assignment positions depicted on the costs (savings) document represented amounts that would have been spent in fiscal year 2014 had Dr. Graham adopted, and the school board approved, her predecessor’s plan to create 13 new positions as part of a reorganization of the zone management system.”

Dr. Joseph Burke was the superintendent until June 19, 2013 and Graham became the superintendent on June 20, 2013.

A preliminary meeting was held on June 18, 2013 that involved a PowerPoint presentation that included such new positions, as three zone managers, three zone coordinators and seven zone teachers on assignment, which did not exist before that date, according to Gonzalez’s report. The board did not take action on that presentation.

Rodriguez’s complaint also stated that 50 percent of the new position, director of Turn Around Schools, was charged to Federal Title I funds. According to Gonzalez’s investigation, the funds became available through “Title 1, Part A: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged 2013-2014” The Florida Department of Education approved the Title I funds on Aug. 21, 2013 for a “director of Turn Around Schools will be hired and funded from 50 percent Title I and 50 percent district funds.”

The board approved the position on June 27, 2013 and the position was filled on July 30, 2013.

The investigation report stated that the issue was the transfer of the Title I funds to a general account, rather than the creation of the position.

“As a matter of law, Dr. Graham could not ‘incur’ or ‘obligate’ Title I funds without authorization obtained as part of an approved application for funds,” Gonzalez wrote in the investigation report. “Neither the creation of a position, nor the appointment of a person to the position incurs or obligates Title I funds and those funds cannot be used to pay for the compensation to be paid to the person who fills that position.”

Teuber called Rodriguez a “disgruntled employee” and said he will want more information before approving any additional investigations.

“We are pretty much done with that, with those types of things unless something shows more proof than what we have been getting,” Teuber said.

He told the board members during the meeting that at some point he is going to bring forth a recommendation that would force Rodriguez to go to court to obtain additional information.

Rodriguez could not be reached for comment by press time.

“A taste of home – Canada”

“A taste of home – Canada”

Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village: Poutine proves to be popular ‘secret menu’ treat

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Dec. 24, 2014 issue

A secret menu item was added to the restaurants at the Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village after the general manager wanted a taste of home – Canada.

Executive Chef Drew Tait said poutine, a traditional French Canadian dish, was added to a “secret menu” after the manager one day asked him if he could make the delicacy for him.

“He wanted something that reminded him of home,” Tait said.

After General Manager Eric Ashton shared the ingredients of poutine – French fries, cheese curd and thick brown gravy – Tait whipped up the comfort food for him to enjoy.

He said after the dish was made, they began tossing around the idea of a secret menu.

“Only people in the know know about the menu,” Tait said of the menu that has never been printed. “We tell people and it’s kind of a word of mouth then.”

He said since they always have ingredients for poutine, it is something that will be around for a long time.

“I like the poutine because my style of food is very simple,” he said. “I’m more of a natural chef.”

Rather than using heavy sauces, Tait enjoys using quality ingredients where he can change the food’s profile and move the guests taste palette.

“That’s the cool thing with the poutine,” he said.

Tait put a twist on the traditional dish.

The poutine uses light brown gravy with good quality French fries and mozzarella cheese.



“It’s a mix of light and heavy,” he said. “It’s good when it is a little cool outside. It’s almost like tomato soup, it warms the soul.”

Once the French fries are done cooking they are seasoned with salt and pepper and topped with mozzarella and brown gravy.

“The heat melts the cheese and heats the gravy,” Tait said.

There are three different kinds of poutine offered at Marker92, Waterfront Bar & Bistro and The Nauti Mermaid Dockside Bar & Grill. He said the main place he sees guests order the special item is at the bar because it is a little salty and fills the stomach.

The traditional poutine includes French fries, mozzarella and gravy.

Floridian Poutine

Floridian Poutine

The Floridian poutine includes French fries topped with fried grouper bites, mozzarella and gravy. The dish is then drizzled with lemon aioli.

The loaded poutine includes green onions and sour cream.

“It’s fun,” he said of creating the poutine dishes. “It’s cool because with our general manager having a connection to Canada, he gets to offer the poutine and explain how it all came about.”

The history of poutine, Tait said goes back to the 1950s when it was invented by Warwick Quebec because some of the best cheese curds come from Canada. He said in Canada there are annual festivals that have a theme of poutine.

Loaded Poutine

Loaded Poutine

In addition to the “secret menu” item, Tait said they are looking to roll out their new menu in mid January.

“This is when we change the menu,” he said, and “add things like short ribs and heavy dishes that fit when the temperatures change.”

He said they are making additions to the menu based on their guests’ feedback, which will include small plates.

One of those small plate items will include short ribs slider – shredded short ribs with a little gravy. He said they are also looking to add some dips such as roasted eggplant and mozzarella dip, as well as various types of bruschetta.

“The idea with the small plates is it’s about the experience of sharing with people and being able to get five or six plates and pick and choose and see what you like,” Tait said. “It is the people’s chance to try something new without spending a lot of money or a lot of food to take home.”

Tait’s career began as a dishwasher when he was 13 years old. He said one day the breakfast cook did not show and he learned how to cook eggs.

Eight year ago he became an executive chef in Punta Gorda at the Turtle Club. He began working at the property in 2012 before it was transitioned to Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village.

“Cooking to me is just as much about how they feel when they leave,” he said of the diners.