At our last School Board briefing Superintendent Browder informed the School Board that the School District qualified for "free" federal stimulus money to be used for construction projects to generate new jobs in our local economy. The $25 million dollar federal grant is actually an interest free long- term loan. The superintendent has indicated that he plans to accept the stimulus money and to use it to pay for renovations on a number of schools in the district, a project which is currently ongoing and would have taken place even without the stimulus money.
Since the superintendent had already planned the renovation projects even before the stimulus money became available, the next question facing the board is how best to address the educational needs of our students and especially how to improve academic performance. We can no longer ignore the fact that 64 percent of our 10th graders cannot read at grade level according to recent FCAT test scores, and SAT/ACT scores have actually declined over the past few years, placing Lee County schools below the state and national averages on these tests. These poor scores serve as an impediment to attracting new businesses to our county and deprive our students of reasonable career opportunities.
With the unexpected infusion of the federal stimulus money, there is no legitimate excuse for the district not to address these a academic problems by placing a referendum on the ballot that would allow the public to vote for a shift of capital money into the operating budget and use this infusion of money to save classroom programs, such as Arts/ Music, seventh period day and to ensure the retention of teachers and support personnel.
Such a budget shift will cost the taxpayers absolutely nothing.
My colleagues, at Superintendent Browder's encouragement, have already voted to increase property taxes, however the board still has the option to reduce the millage rate and use some of this money to offset current projects.
The best stimulus program for Lee County is attracting new business, helping local small business with lower taxes and keeping families in their homes.
The Superintendent needs to lead the district with a vision that focuses on improving academics and rethink the idea of raising taxes when people all over the district are losing their homes.
Robert Chilmonik represents District One on the Lee County School Board.