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.



School grades above state average

School grades above state average: 76 percent of Lee high schools get an A or B

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Dec. 18, 2014 issue

Two high schools in Cape Coral sustained their A grades, while the other two schools went from an A to a B for 2014.

Cape Coral High School and Ida Baker High School kept their A grade, which both schools have earned since 2012. Island Coast High School received a B, after earning an A for the first time since 2010. Mariner High School received a school grade of a B, which is the first time since 2010.

According to the School District of Lee County, 76 percent of high schools in Lee County earned an A or B grade, which exceeds the state average of 71 percent. Statistics also show that there are 60 fewer A schools in the state of Florida compared to last year, which includes four high schools in Lee County – Island Coast, Cypress Lake, Mariner and Lee Virtual.

Lee Virtual dropped to a B because only 94 percent of its students tested.

East Lee County High School was one of 55 schools in the state of Florida to have raised a letter grade from a D to a C.

“Even though we improved there, we understand we have a lot of work to do,” Board Member Steve Teuber said. “This board will be looking at changing how we apply resources to East.”

He said the board will look at what resources are necessary for success, giving East further attention and emphasis to improve the letter grade even further.

The high school grades are based on 50 percent assessment performances and the remaining 50 percent is based on such components as graduation rates, ACT and SAT scores and for the first time this year U.S. History End of Course exam.

Teuber said the graduation rate continues to increase for Lee County schools. He said Island Coast High School had an 89 percent graduation rate, Cape Coral High School had an 88 percent graduation rate, Ida Baker High School had a 90 percent graduation rate and Mariner High School had an 86 percent graduation rate.

The dropout rate, on the other hand, Teuber said, stinks.

“The state doubled and we tripled,” he said.

Lee County’s dropout rate went from 1.1 percent to 3.9 percent, compared to the state dropout rate of 4.3 percent.

Teuber said if a ninth to 12th grade student moves to Georgia and tells the school district they are moving, that student is taken out of the system. If the school district is not made aware of a student moving out of the school district, they are considered a dropout.

The school grade scores were changed on a state level from the previous year, 2013-2014 for A and B schools. Schools were required to earn 70 additional points to earn or maintain an A grade. In order to earn or maintain a B grade, high schools were required to earn an additional 50 points.

Teuber said the question the district has to look into is did those schools drop a grade because of the extra 70 points they had to earn, or would the school grades have dropped if the bar was not raised.

“I don’t know if it’s indicative to less performance or didn’t perform enough,” he said, adding that he will further look into the state data.

Outside counsel to investigate complaint

Outside counsel to investigate complaint

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Dec. 11, 2014 issue

The School District of Lee County unanimously agreed to spend up to $10,000 to have an outside attorney investigate a complaint against Superintendent Nancy Graham.

The complaint alleges she “embellished” claims to have saved the district nearly $1 million, as well as expended Title I funds without approval.

The School District of Lee County received a letter from the Florida Department of Education Inspector General Office Dec. 8, regarding allegations made for Graham’s June 27, 2013 reorganization plan. 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.”

Within 30 days of receiving the letter, the school district must send findings and actions of its investigation to the Inspector General Office.

The complaint, which was made by Alberto Rodriguez, a former district employee, addresses Graham’s reorganization plan saving the district $994,555.36.

The letter sent to Inspector General Mike Blackburn from Rodriguez dated Dec. 4 stated “there are a number of striking discrepancies/anomalies that fail to pass fiscal scrutiny and inflates the savings estimates.”

Board Member Steve Teuber said this is the district’s sixth complaint that has come from Rodriguez. He said Rodriguez has asked for more than 230 public record requests.

Teuber, who declined specific comment on the complaint while it is under investigation, said the board had the option of having an internal investigation done to provide information. This is what happened two years ago when Joseph Burke was the superintendent.

In an effort to be efficient and expedient in finding the data, Teuber said it is best to have outside council collect the information. In addition, the use of outside council provides for better public perception than using people directed by the superintendent to pull information regarding the allegations.

“The appearance to the community isn’t transparent,” he said of using staff.

The board’s unanimous vote directed Keith Martin, the board attorney, to hire Thomas Gonzalez, out of Tampa, at a rate of $175 an hour. Teuber said Gonzalez told the board he could do the investigation for $10,000 or less. He said an internal investigation would cost a comparable amount.

The areas Rodriguez outlined included cutting three zone managers from maintenance to save the district $244,419. Rodriguez stated that those three positions were reassigned to service managers of the east, west and south zones.

He also stated in his letter that rather than the district saving money on cutting three zone coordinator positions, it only saved money on one position after it closed due to one employee retiring. Rodriguez further stated that the savings was “over-inflated” by more than $200,000.

The letter also touched upon savings regarding seven zone teachers on assignment.

“The savings amount cited here of $631,099 would mean that even using the most optimistic figures by adding fringe benefits to the totals, would amount to $90,155.43 per teacher,” Rodriguez wrote in the letter. “Not even the highest paying districts in Florida do teacher salaries with fringes are in the $90,000 range, let along Lee County.”

He also stated in the letter that 50 percent of the new position, director of Turn Around Schools, was charged to Federal Title I funds.

Teuber said the unfortunate thing about the Office of Inspector General’s request, is he had to bring forward the issue at a special meeting focused on legislative matters because the next scheduled board meeting was not until January.

“We are still in the mode of spending a lot of time not focusing on students,” he said. “This is another distraction not focusing on students. This board is focused on kids. We dealt with it and moved on and now hope people spend more time on legislation and academic improvement.”


‘Opt-out’ aftermath

‘Opt-out’ aftermath: School District looks to move forward

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Aug. 28, 2014

With the Lee County School Board’s decision Wednesday to “opt out” of statewide assessment testing, personnel of the school district were left scrambling to formulate a plan Thursday morning.

“The plan in stone is to stop the high stake testing,” Boardmember Don Armstrong, who voted in favor of the measure, said Thursday morning. “This is about education and about giving our students the best education. When these tests don’t accurately measure how the kids are doing, that is an issue.”

He said the school board’s vote to “opt out of high stake testing,” gave the superintendent direction of how to formulate a plan to stop the testing in the best way possible.

“Dr. Graham is meeting with staff now and is working on a plan,” he said Thursday morning. “We set that in motion. She (Graham) has to formulate the plan to execute it. It’s her job.”

Board Member Mary Fischer, who also voted in favor, said she felt the decision to “opt out” was a statement.

“I have asked the superintendent to bring us a recommendation with some clarity of exactly what opting out of standard mandated testing means and what those tests are,” she said. “We will be approving a new strategic plan that will give us a road map. We will still be teaching the standard. The superintendent will bring forward a plan for assessment.”

Steve Teuber, who is running against Armstrong, said his heart is very heavy due to the decision three of the five board members made Wednesday night.

In addition to Armstrong and Fischer, and Tom Scott voted for the motion.

“While all of this is happening we are spending money we didn’t have,” he said. “Now we are taking all these resources going into reaction mode. What is happening to education and instruction right now? What do you think the advantageous affect is happening in Lee County? Those are the types of things these three didn’t think about.”

Tueber also said by the board taking action Wednesday night, no alternative plan was provided.

“What option is the state going to have,” he asked. “What happens if the state doesn’t give an answer for six months? The potential consequences for this move are humungous. I would not have done it this way.”

Tueber said there is nothing to support from the action taken at the board meeting.

“We don’t have a plan to get behind to support,” he said. “We don’t know what to do next until the state responds.”

Tueber said although the teachers will continue to teach the children of Lee County, he questioned how long before that has an impact on them.

“You don’t know what you are going to test,” he said. “You are going to end up losing a portion of our kids’ education to figure it out. I don’t think it has to be that way. I think it is a tipping point. It is going to make a decision.”

Incoming board member Pam LaRivere said she would have liked to have seen the board vote on each of the pieces separately because there was a blanket statement made for opting out of all mandated test taking. She said if the tests are looked at individually, it would have provided an opportunity to look at the reasons believed they were not necessary pieces.

“We have to have a plan. We need to provide something to the state,” she said. “Now the district is going to have to work very quickly to come up with a plan.”

According to information released by the Lee County School District, there are numerous potential effects of the district opting out of statewide assessments.

Some of the effects on students include: graduation requirements cannot be completed due to Florida Statutes requiring students passing 10th grade FCAT, or ELA Assessment, and algebra 1 end of course exam; course completion credit may not be obtained for end of course exams, which is 30 percent of their grade; third grade retention could not be appropriately administered because it is based on statewide standardized assessment and Lee County could not comply with Opportunity Scholarships.

The decision also affects employees, schools, the school district and funding.

Instructional personnel and school administrator evaluations would be affected because their performances are based on student growth, which is assessed by statewide assessments. Performance pay would also be affected, as well as funding because schools would not receive recognition dollars for letter grade improvements.

As far as schools, incomplete school grades would be issued because 95 percent of students have to participate in statewide assessments, according to information provided by the school district. Charter schools would also feel the effects of opting out of testing. The school district is required to provide test administration services and cost payments for the required student assessments.

Lee County could not be an “academically high performing district” and state funds, discretionary grant funds and discretionary lottery funds would be withheld.

Tueber said the school board could have addressed the problem of excessive testing in a different manner due to there being three different issues: standardized testing, Common Core and excessive testing.

Teuber said 60 percent of “excessive testing” is done from the county level, which he believes is what everyone is complaining about.

As far as Common Core, he said there are four carts to a train: the first is standards, the second is how you teach the standards, the third is how you evaluate what is taught and the final is how the teachers are evaluated on the first three.

Teuber said the standards are the same standards that Florida has had for the past five years. He said there is a only a 7 percent material difference between FCAT and Common Core.

Last year, Teuber said, a bill was passed in the state of Florida that provided control over all curriculums at a district level. He said the school board should have formed committees that looked into every piece of curriculum to see what is acceptable. Once that step is taken, it narrows down the curriculum and produces your very own Lee County curriculum, he said.

“Now you have a test,” Teuber said. “Now you go to the state and say we are not doing it because we are not teaching your Common Core crap. That’s when you take the battle to them. That is a good eight months to a year down the road.”

Armstrong said although the board has had discussion after discussion about high stake testing, they were not getting anywhere.

“It is time to take action,” he said. “This doesn’t mean education stops in the county. All we are doing is stopping the state mandated testing. These kids still have to go to school. They still have a curriculum . . . still have to learn how to read, write, add, multiple, subtract, and divide. The only difference is you are not going to be tested to death.”

Fischer said the board had a look at the tests and a pairing down of the number of tests given, which collects a lot of data that is not necessarily used to measure the growth of students and their continued skill building.

The amount of money spent district wide for the state testing also raises some concerns for Armstrong. He said, conservatively, $11.2 million is spent annually on testing.

Armstrong said high stake testing has unnecessary stress and pressure and takes away from active teaching.

“Educating them does not mean giving them a test for two months straight,” he said.

Armstrong said it was time to take a stance against high stake testing and take their education system back from Tallahassee.

“Remember the Boston Tea Party?” he asked. “They threw all the tea into the river. We got the Caloosahatchee River down here. I think that is a good place for the Common Core and high stake testing. I would rather ship it back to Tallahassee and say thanks, but no thanks.”

Armstrong said there still needs to be some type of testing for assessment. He believes that can be accomplished through a beginning of the year, middle of the year and end of year exam. By having all three exams, Armstrong said it gages the students at the beginning of the year, how much they have obtained in the middle of the year and the progress they have made at the end of the year.

Fischer agrees that the school district needs assessment. She said she thinks the district needs to use tests that are norm, validated and reliable and provide them with good information.

“We will move forward and our kids will be involved in learning activities and hopefully our teachers will feel freer to challenge the curriculum,” she said.