TALLAHASSEE– On June 2 Governor Ron DeSantis signed the $100 billion state budget for 2021. Included in that budget was $22.8 billion for K-12 education in Florida.
The budget includes streamlined and expanded school choice options and increases in funding for teacher raises and mental health services.
“Thanks to Governor DeSantis’ forward-thinking governance, Florida remains on a steady path to become number one for education in the country,” said Commissioner Corcoran. “I am thankful for the Legislature embracing the Governor’s priorities to ensure every student has the opportunity to receive the best education possible and every teacher feels valued and appreciated. We are full steam ahead so all students are set up for success to realize their educational and life goals.”
Also in the budget is approximately $66.8 million that will go to building a new high school in Okeechobee.
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 Leaks, flooding, infrastructure needs, and outdated technology highlighted the list of problems at OHS during that initial inspection.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.
Greg Kelley of CRA Architects 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.
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.
But 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.
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.