Testing the Limits: Paying for school growth

LEE COUNTY, Fla. – The recession is over and Southwest Florida’s population is growing again.

One trip in your car or one visit to a local restaurant is enough to prove that the economy is churning along. But with that growth comes tremendous challenges for local schools.

WINK News spoke with Dr. Greg Adkins, Superintendent of Lee County Public Schools.

He says, “We are experiencing tremendous growth. We are looking at 1500 students per year just in our district alone, upwards of up to 2800 students if you layer in the charter schools. Not not only does that press our school capacity to the max, but also trying to find the number of people, employees, to staff those schools has proven to be very, very difficult.”

The Lee County School District hired 700 teachers this year and they still have vacancies. That is forcing the school district to think outside the box.

Dr. Adkins says, “We’re facing a national teacher shortage and it becomes much more problematic when you experience the growth we’ve experienced here in Lee County. What we’ve had to do is really get aggressive in our recruitment.”

The district is hiring non-teachers, graduates from other disciplines and then training them on the job. Teaching them classroom skills and education techniques.

Not all parents are on board with that idea. We talked to parent Jennifer Lucas at Cypress Lake Middle School, she says, “I think anyone would rather they stick to only educators but they’re in a situation that they have no control over. I think if we paid our teachers more we would have more people going to college for teaching.”

Parent Annie McMurray agrees, “You need qualified people to teach your kids. It diminishes the degree of a teacher if just anybody can do it.”

The Lee County School District is also working on keeping the teachers that it has. Lee County, like the rest of the country, is facing tremendous teacher turnover.

Dr. Adkins says, “We mirror the national average where you look at the first five years of teaching and almost 50 percent of those teachers that start never complete those five years.”

That’s immensely costly to the district. The district estimates it costs between $15,000-$20,000 to train every teacher. Money they can’t recoup if teachers leave, so they are working on plans to improve the teaching environment.

Dr. Adkins says, “Right now we find teachers are over burdened, over stressed. They lack the amount of time to plan adequately for students. Therefore, what we have to do is work at improving the working conditions at the school house. So teachers have the time they need and the resources they need to do better in the classroom.”

The district is also looking at alternative ways to fund schools. The school board is looking at a plan to sell naming rights at schools. Soliciting monetary resources in exchange for naming areas in schools, like gymnasiums or theaters. The are also working to be more efficient with the resources they have.

“Our first step it to make sure we are maximizing on our own capital and operational budgets. We are doing some things to increase our efficiency. We are investing in more efficient energy systems, HVAC systems, and we have been able to demonstrate that by using better technology we can actually reduce our energy consumption considerably,” said Dr. Adkins.

Dr. Adkins is also looking at changing the current student assignment process and zone rules. By allowing students to cross zones, he could help the district fill all students seats at schools before building new schools.

“If we have other schools in other places that are under capacity, how can we leverage our capacity in those schools? For example, if you go to the West Zone, we have some schools that are under utilized. So if I’m a taxpayer, I’m going to ask the obvious question…’Why are you coming to me with a half penny sales tax or why do you want to change the way we do millage when we have schools that are not full?’ And I would say, that’s a very good question.”

Shrinking school sub zones would limit the number of choices parents have when selecting a school, but it would also reduce bussing costs. In Lee County transportation is 7 percent of the district’s total expenditures. It also transports 22 perent more students than the state average.

But more than anything, Dr. Adkins says we need good people with a desire to teach.

“Human beings that are driven to educate others. I can’t say that enough. Teachers drive our business, so we are always going to need great teachers, yet the number of people going off to college today and saying ‘I want to be a teacher’ is going down, but I’m here to tell you it is a great life.”

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