OKEECHOBEE- Funds for a new Okeechobee High School were included in the new $100 billion state budget signed by Governor Ron DeSantis on June 2.
Approximately $66.8 million in the state budget will go to building a new high school in Okeechobee.
At their June 8 meeting, members of the Okeechobee County School Board received an update from Greg Kelley of CRA Architects on the project.
CRA, which has designed multiple schools in Florida, including South Fork High School in Stuart and Marathon Middle/High School in Marathon, was selected to help design the new school in Okeechobee.
Kelley was involved Okeechobee’s attempt at getting funding for a new high school back in 2015. That year, when the school district submitted a request to Florida Department of Education (FDOE) for funding to replace the high school, the request was denied.
“There’s been a lot of turnover at FDOE,” said Kelley to the school board in 2019 as they began the long process of applying for funding again. “The person that was responsible for last time is no longer there. They seem to be more open and receptive to it. I’m not standing here promising it’s 100% a slam dunk. But I can tell you that from back when you were trying to get in and things were kind of locked down, that has opened up. There were two or three last year that got in and there are three this year that are applying.”
The first building at Okeechobee High School was constructed in 1966. Seven more buildings were added in 1968, two in 1973, and finally three in 1993.
Estimates in 2015 put the costs of building a new high school at around $60 million. Leaks, flooding, infrastructure needs, and outdated technology highlighted the list of problems at OHS during that initial inspection.
Other problems included: computer labs in the library limiting access to the library; the cafeteria lacking capacity especially during inclement weather; a lack of storage areas; not enough bathrooms; and the locker rooms being over capacity.
The FDOE uses what is called a Castaldi report to determine if a school needs to be replaced. The Castaldi report on OHS back in 2015 stated that it would be more cost-effective to build a new high school than renovate the existing one.
Still the funding was denied by then Gov. Rick Scott’s FDOE.
Kelley said at the time that Okeechobee was the only facility he had seen in the past 25 years that didn’t get funded after an approved Castaldi report.
The most recent attempt at getting funding for a new high school cleared its first hurdle way back on July 31, 2020. It was then that a Special Facilities Preapplication Committee from Tallahassee visited Okeechobee High School and determined that the building was in critical need of replacement.
In 2019 the school board approved applying for special facilities consideration. The committee, consisting of two representatives from the Florida Department of Education and two from other school districts, was scheduled to visit the high school in late March to early May 2020, but COVID-19 delayed that and the visit was rescheduled to July.
Following that approval by the Special Facilities Preapplication Committee, members of the school district made another presentation to the Special Facilities Committee in September, along with other districts requesting funds, to be ranked for future funding through the Special Facilities program.
The Special Facilities Committee ranked Okeechobee High School as second most in need just behind an elementary school in Calhoun County which suffered damage from Hurricane Michael.
The school district says that in the forthcoming weeks plans will be made to determine construction methodology, select a contractor, hold community meetings and start construction.
“In the morning, we roll our sleeves up and start working,” said Kelley at the June 8 meeting. “We will be coming back probably monthly, assigning tasks and giving you updates.”
One problem to be tackled will be the increased cost of building supplies as the economy reopens from the COVID-19 pandemic. Lumber prices rose to a high of $1,600 per 1,100 board feet this year. Also, US hot-rolled, coil steel hit a record high of $1,616 per ton this year.
“The cost of constriction materials is at an all-time high,” continued Kelley. “We may be having some conversations on that down the road.”
There are some signs prices could be normalizing. Since May, lumber futures have taken a downward trend, falling 33%. Another action that could alleviate high prices would be the federal government lifting tariffs placed on Canadian lumber in 2017.
The Trump administration initiated the tariffs to protect American industry and jobs against alleged unfair trade tactics. And the move was popular with members of the US lumber industry, who are calling on the new Biden administration to leave tariffs in place.
"More lumber being manufactured in America to meet domestic demand is a direct result of the trade enforcement, and we strongly urge the Administration to continue this enforcement,” said Jason Brochu, U.S. Lumber Coalition Co-Chair in a statement in May.