Could Okeechobee get a new high school?

OKEECHOBEE — With a new Governor in Tallahassee and fresh faces at the Florida Department of Education (FDOE), there’s renewed hope that Okeechobee might finally be approved funding for a new high school.

During the public comment portion of the Okeechobee County School Board meeting on July 9 Greg Kelly of CRA Architects spoke to the board about the new atmosphere in the capital.

The last time Mr. Kelly was in Okeechobee was back in 2015 when the school district was preparing to submit a request to FDOE for funding to replace the high school. That request was denied.

“There’s been a lot of turnover at FDOE,” said Mr. Kelly to the school board. “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 Leaks, flooding, infrastructure needs, and outdated technology highlighted the list of problems at OHS during that initial inspection.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.

Mr. Kelly 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.

Brad Will from CORE Constriction also spoke and mentioned that the school district in Jackson County was just approved for a $60 million facility, similar to the price range the new high school would’ve cost back in 2015.

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy worried that the improvements the district has had to make on the high school in recent years might work against them when they apply for funding again.

“We just put on a new roof and we have asphalt being laid out there as we speak,” said Mr. Kenworthy. “I wonder if the actions we’ve taken are going to hurt us. Even though we have the Castaldi report saying it would be cheaper to rebuild. It might be a challenge.”

Board member Joe Arnold pointed out that performing renovations to the high school is what FDOE asked the district to do after denying funds to build a new one.

“My thought process is what they asked you to do isn’t going to work,” said Brad Will from CORE Construction. “There’s a lot of issues here that you can’t correct and keep throwing money at, such as the bathroom issues and ADA accessibility.”

School board members expressed interest at discussing the issue more at an upcoming meeting. The deadline to apply for funds is Feb. 1 2020. If approved those funds would be available in 2021.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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