CLEWISTON -- Despite objections from residents over the Hendry County School Board's proposal to turn a 1939 former high school into a career center, the district approved it by a vote of 3-1. Stephine Busin was the only dissenting vote. Jon Basquin abstained from voting due to a conflict of interest.
During the public comment segment of its regular Board meeting Aug. 3, 2021, emails sent to the school district were read aloud opposing the renovation of the building for the purpose of a commercial facility in a residential neighborhood. Twenty-one public comments were in opposition to the plan and three were in support.
Objections centered around increased traffic, lack of parking, negatively impacting residential property values, a general demise of the residential atmosphere and even accusing the school board of not being transparent about its renovation plans.
The two-story building has been vacant for about 10 years and needs renovation due to leaking windows and termites.
The School Board CFO has identified funds set aside for capital projects that will cover the renovation cost estimated between $500,000 to $700,000.
The upstairs portion of the building will be dedicated for current and future staff growth, but the district wants to rent out the first floor for income.
Career Source South Florida has indicated the location would be ideal for its needs, providing employment services for residents, migrant workers and GED, ESOL and technical training. The rent paid would allow the district to recoup the renovation expenses over time.
Resident Laura Smith told the district during the open comment section that she owns 11 homes within a two-block area of East Osceola Avenue where the historic building is located.
She urged the district to postpone a vote until more information can be considered and more residents can voice their opinions.
“It appears to be an effort to exclude the residents who would be most affected by this proposal if it will be approved now,” she said.
Smith said the estimated renovation costs would be closer to $750,000 to $1 million, much higher than the current estimate.
The district would need to net $10,000 a month in rent to break even in 10 years, Smith said. With the current rent at $5,200 gross, minus maintenance, upkeep and repair expenses, she felt a better option would be to have the career center located at the Clewiston Plaza strip mall.
“I see no direct benefit to students or faculty to entertain this proposal,” she said. “You’ll be taking away the properties in Clewiston from tax-paying landlords. The school board does not pay taxes.”
Marlin Vaughn, who runs the nonprofit organization The Joseph Project 863, Inc., was the sole community supporter of the restoration and subsequent commercial use at the meeting.
The Joseph Project is a volunteer mentoring program that helps low-income workers, newly graduated high school students and unemployed persons training, scholarships and other supportive services that aren’t available elsewhere in the city.
He said Clewiston has a great need for the type of training the Career Source could offer residents due to a growing shortage of skilled trades such as steel workers.
Many of those jobs have left Clewiston as high-tech industry became more prevalent, he said, leaving Clewiston without enough trained personnel and eliminating the potential for future industries requiring skilled employees for manual work.
"Other companies come in and take the jobs," he said. "That takes the money right out of our community.”
After hearing the comments, the board voted 3-1 to allow the Superintendent to negotiate a contract with Career Source. The contract will come back to the board for final approval later.