No new schools this year, but that’s not a bad thing, Collier district officials say

— For the first time in a long time, the Collier County School District will not open any new schools this year.

“There’s not a lot left to do,” said Alvah Hardy, executive director of facilities for the district. “We have good capacity in the Estates and everywhere else. We just aren’t seeing people move into the area like we were.”

That news couldn’t come at a better time, as the district has shifted some of its capital funds, which pay for the new schools, for operational costs, like salaries.

The district’s tentative $959.6 million budget reflects the inclusion of the district’s referendum, which Collier voters passed in November, which allows the district to move .25 mills from its capital budget to its operating budget.

Since it is a shift from one area to another, the referendum does not raise or lower taxes. It was necessary, district officials have said, to be able to maintain student programs.

In addition, the state Legislature gave school districts flexibility in use of capital funding this year. All school districts have been given permission to move .25 mills from the capital to operating budget.

Bob Spencer, executive director of financial services for the district, said the option gives districts the same advantage as the referendum gave Collier, but unlike the referendum, which is good for four years, there is no guarantee the state will give districts the option next year.

In addition to the referendum, the Collier County School District is using the state’s plan to move .178 mills from its capital budget to its operating budget. The move, Spencer said, would allow the district to meet its capital needs. The district is going to put the money in its reserves to help when federal stimulus money is no longer available in 2011-12.

But while the district’s capital fund is not as flush as it once was, there are still several changes at some Collier County schools this fall, Hardy said.

The district is completing a three-year, $25 million project to renovate the Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology. The project includes a new building for the Lorenzo Walker Career and Technical High School, which opened last year, and renovations to the existing Walker Institute of Technology facility.

Hardy said with the addition of a storefront for programs like cosmetology and automotive, the district will close Building 1 at the facility, which served as the reception area, to renovate it as the media center both for the high school and the adult programs.

“It’s the last step to get it all together,” Hardy said. “Working on an operating campus has been a challenge. Particularly this campus, which is open every day and every night.”

Immokalee High School is also seeing about $22 million in additions and renovations to the school this summer. The scope of the work includes remodeling the career laboratories to classrooms, some of which will be used for the Teenage Parenting Program; expansion of the cafeteria dining area; expanding the number of seats in the auditorium; and upgrades to the air conditioning system.

Naples High School students will get to play in a new $15.5 million gymnasium. The state-of-the-art facilities include new basketball goals, bigger weight rooms, more locker room space and a larger practice area.

After more than a year of construction, the new gym is scheduled to be fully functional and available to students when school starts back up in August. The school plans to schedule a grand opening ceremony for the facility in October. The old gymnasium, which was a combination of the original building from 1960 and a secondary gym added on years later, was demolished this summer. That area, Hardy said, was turned into a courtyard for student use.

Naples is not the only school seeing renovations to its athletic facilities, Hardy said. Gulf Coast High School is just the latest school to receive artificial turf on its football field. Barron Collier High School’s baseball field also saw some improvements.

“The field was a little low compared with other fields that were built around it,” said Hardy.

Parents dropping their students off at Big Cypress Elementary School in Golden Gate Estates and Oakridge Middle School in North Naples will also see changes come fall. Hardy said the district has made driveway and parking improvements to both schools.

“At Big Cypress, we are separating the buses and the cars. The buses will be up front and the parents who pick up their children will pick them up by the administration building,” he said. “At Oakridge, we did some things to make the parking lot work better.”

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