Lee County school board member upset with conditions of portable classroom buildings

A Lee County school board member recently came forward with concerns that students are learning under dangerous conditions.

Gwyn Gittens said the school district’s portables have been used for more than 15 years. She said photos of the outside of the buildings bring her pain that students have to go to school in these conditions.

Gittens, who’s already on record with Gov. Ron DeSantis, claims the School District of Lee County is guilty of fraud, waste and abuse. She shared photos with WINK News that show chipped cinderblock supporting portable school buildings and insulation hanging underneath from the floor.

Gittens said the photos – and more – should worry every parent. She said the condition of these buildings is unacceptable and she got emotional when talking about it with WINK News.

“If someone comes up the ramp, who’s to say they’re not going to trip and get hurt?” she asked.

“Looking at the statutes, portables are supposed to be temporary.”

That’s where Gittens and the school district disagree. In a statement, the school district referred us to State Statute 1013.21. In layman’s terms, if there are 1,000 students in portables less than 20 years old, the district cannot build a new school for them.

Gittens referred us to the same state statute – 1013 – but section 20 (1013.20), which simply put, says portables that fail to meet safety standards should not be used as classrooms.

Gittens said, “I have brought it up for two and a half years. And I have been told stay in your lane and stop asking questions.”

“By who?” WINK News asked.

“Oh, everyone. Yes, ma’am.”

“The superintendent, the district, everyone’s telling you stop asking questions?” WINK News asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

WINK News cannot verify where the photos of the portables came from and Gittens will not say. She wants every parent of students in portables to wonder if she’s talking about them.

If her children were learning in these portables, Gittens said, “I would be on your show every day. I need the parents. That’s one of the main reasons I’m doing this. People need to see.”

Since Gittens wouldn’t say which school the photos are from, she said to “just look. It’s happening in your district.”

The school district told WINK News that safety experts inspect every portable every school year and if there’s a problem or hazard, the district prioritizes them.

FULL STATEMENT FROM GWYN GITTENS:

Through My Eyes!

In the past 2.5 years I have discussed the topic of “portables/relocatables in the Lee County School system; how many, the age, status, the cost of leasing, cost to “upkeep” the ones we own. There are seven of us on this board, why are my tears the only ones being shed for the neglect of “what is best for children?” The Board ignores my Facts and Data, my constant please and “badgering”…can they ignore the visuals? Am I the only one that sees this? Why can’t we prioritize our resources over time to phase out the use of so many “temporary Classrooms?”

As an elected member of the Lee County School Board, I have the right to go on any property owned by the district. I recently took pictures of some of the portables/relocatables in the District. I am totally responsible for these pictures, so there is no need to blame or investigate any employees. It does not matter where these “classrooms” are located; the problem is that they are located within the Lee County School District!

I took these pictures with tears rolling down my cheeks, just thinking about the students and staff that would walk up the ramps with missing screws that are more like a trampoline, or how long before one of the pieces of rotting wood or broken concrete blocks will fail, what if someone has allergies to the insulation hanging out under the “classroom?”

District staff told the public as recently as last week “it is a state statute that we must keep portables for 20 years!” I did my research and also spoke with DOE that is incorrect according to State Statute 1013.20. (See below)

(1*) “Relocatables that fail to meet the standards must NOT be used as classrooms.”

(2*) “Relocatables must have access to the same technology as classrooms in the main building.” How many of the portables in Lee County have the latest technology Promethean Boards? Which schools have the new boards as of today?

(3*) If a relocatable “does NOT meet the standards it shall NOT be reported as a SATISFACTORY STUDENT STATION”. The Dept. of Education requires an annual report (F.I.S.H.) that gives the total number of student stations (seats) in the district. The district continues to count subpar structures as “student stations” and the Department of Education denies us the funding and permission to build needed schools.

(4*) State statute requires an “Annual Inspection” of relocatables: foundations; tie-downs; structural integrity; weatherproofing; HVAC; electrical; plumbing, if applicable; fire safety; and accessibility. An annual report must be filed with the District and posted in each respective relocatable in order to facilitate corrective action. I have never seen these reports printed or posted.

I wish my fellow board members shared the depth of pain I feel to see these conditions. They have said to me in the past “please explain what it is you want, you keep asking the same questions. How can we help you if we don’t understand?” My answer is, I have tried to explain. I have asked for special meetings to discuss. We need the whole “village” to understand and get together to do what is “Best For All Children!”

STATE STATUTE 1013.20 (referenced by Gittens)

STATE STATUTE 1013.21 (referenced by LCSD)

FULL RESPONSE FROM THE DISTRICT TO WINK NEWS’ QUESTIONS

NOTE: School district replies are in italics.

WINK News Reporter Sydney Persing: I’m reaching out regarding an interview I did this afternoon with Ms. Gwyn Gittens.

She shared with me photos of portables/relocatables in Lee County–she did not tell me what schools the photos were taken at.

She told me the photos show unsafe conditions for students: rusty doors, loose screws on ramps, rotting wood, insulation coming undone, and loose straps meant for storm safety. It is inappropriate for us to comment on photos that neither WINK News nor the District can verify.

She told me some of the portables have been in place for more than 15 years, and despite being told by district staff that state statute requires the portables stay for 20 years, that is not the case. https://www.flsenate.gov/Laws/Statutes/2018/1013.21

In layman’s terms this means that if we have 1,000 students in portables younger than 20 years old, we cannot built a school for 1,000 students to move them to. The law considers the portables part of our capacity, and if we are at capacity under the law, then we cannot build a new school.

She also told me state statute requires an annual inspection of relocatables and she’s never seen those reports printed or posted.

The reports are available to anyone who makes a public records request for them.

Is anyone available from the district (spokesperson or superintendent) available for an interview to respond to Ms. Gittens’ claims?

How many portables does the county have and where are they located? We have 148 portables in use that we either own or rent. 6 in the West Zone, 25 in the South Zone and 117 in the East Zone. We recognize the discrepancy, so please remember that in the East Zone we added 700 student stations at Lehigh Senior High School for the start of the 2019/2020 school year. We have Gateway High School open with 450 freshman this year and the new campus will have freshman, sophomores and juniors in August. The new Lehigh Acres Middle School opens in August and the old campus will be renovated over the next couple of years. We are entering into construction contracts to build a new elementary school in Lehigh and we just announced a K-8 in partnership with FGCU will be built on Treeline Ave. and open in 2024.

Are they — and how many — are inspected annually? Yes, they are all inspected annually as required.

What are the conditions of the portables currently? Have any poor conditions been located and are they being addressed? The District is mandated by State Requirements for Educational Facilities to inspect portable classrooms every year. We use safety experts to identify any hazards and prioritize them for repair. The inspection reports are approved by the School Board and available through the Board agendas on Boarddocs or to anyone who makes a public records request.

STATEMENT FROM BETSY VAUGHN, VICE CHAIR OF BOARD

I am aware that East Zone schools have many more portable classrooms than other zones. East has long been a “stepchild.” Although the SDLC has ongoing building projects in the East Zone, my belief is that the District’s “catch up” is inadequate.

I have not seen Ms. Gittens’ photos, however, if that description is accurate, I will actively join Ms. Gittens in uncovering how the District has allowed such appallingly dangerous conditions to exist anywhere in this county. I plan to schedule visits to that school as well as to other schools with portables.

I would add that I am unsure about Ms. Gittens’ reference to “fellow Board members,” but she is wrong if she believes that ALL of us lack concern about such unacceptable conditions.

STATEMENT FROM MARY FISCHER, BOARD MEMBER

We have had conversations regarding our portables at the board table and did receive details from staff.

The members of this board and District staff are fully committed to the safety of our students and teachers, as well as continuous improvements.

Respectfully,
Mary

Reporter:Sydney Persing
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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