Gateway Sun

There’s a misconception that the debate about whether to place the high school in Gateway or Alva is pitting one entire town against another.

A majority – actually, it would more accurately be described as a supermajority — of Gateway residents want the high school to be built on the property owned by the Lee County School District along Griffin Drive. However many residents within the Magnolia Lakes community, who would be right next to the school, want nothing to do with it.

In addition, there is a group of vocal Gateway residents raising alarms about potential traffic concerns on Griffin Drive. So support for a high school in Gateway isn’t unanimous.

Meanwhile in rural Alva, it’s a town divided. Literally.

The Caloosahatchee River separates northern Alva from southern Alva, and what side of the “do you want a high school?” question you land on has everything to do with what side of the river your property is located.

The proposed Alva school would be built on the south side. And south side residents polled 7 to 1 against having a high school built on their side of town, according to resident Daniel Powers.

Support in favor of an Alva high school comes almost exclusively from the north side, where all four members of the “steering committee” live. There is some compelling proof that the “steering committee” may deserve their name, as they are attempting to steer most of the future development in Alva to the opposite side of town so that they may maintain their own rural lives. More on that at a future date.

But opposition from within Alva or Gateway isn’t going to be the Lee County School District’s largest problem.

Regardless of which community is selected the school district is going to have to find a way to pay for the school. And the method that’s been coming up since 2015 is a half-percent increase to the Lee County sales tax.

Raising the sales tax from 6% to 6.5% would be a viable method to spread the cost burden to all residents in the county, and it would also mean that approximately 25-30% of the costs are effectively paid for by tourists.

Getting Lee County residents to sign off on a tax-hike at all will be a monumental challenge. But imagine how much more difficult the elected School Board would make the task if they chose the Alva site, with full knowledge that it would be about $2 million cheaper to build in Gateway, and obviously much cheaper on transportation costs for the next 20-50 years.

Even the $2 million figure, which was reported by NBC-2 and was sourced by the LCSD, seems optimistic on the low side. But since the school has not even been designed yet it’s difficult to know how the LCSD arrived at that number.

Board members who vote in favor of the Alva site will never again be able to claim they are fiscally responsible. If they don’t plan to run again it won’t be a problem. But if they do, the campaign commercials will write themselves.

This is purely a hypothetical example:

[CUE OMINOUS MUSIC] …. “On April 5, 2016, Lee County school board member Cathleen Morgan said ‘I don’t think we’re in a position to go out to the public [and ask for a sales tax increase] – and that’s because of this board’ … so why did she vote to needlessly spend more money to build a school in Alva? [CUE HAPPY MUSIC] … This November, vote for Mr. Opponent, because he plans to treat every tax dollar like it’s the most important dollar he’ll ever spend!

Although that is a direct quote, Morgan has NOT come out in favor of Alva or Gateway. I want that clear. She has not indicated a preference either way. The above was just an example of what we’ll be seeing on our television screens.

In fact, an entire “Vote No” campaign would almost certainly form for the specific purpose of fighting the sales tax increase. A substantial portion of their argument would be that the board had a perfectly good choice in Gateway with all utilities present and ten times larger student population, but the board decided to build in Alva (where there are no utilities) at a higher cost in both construction and transportation. “And the school district thinks they’re responsible enough to ask for more of our hard-earned tax dollars?” … I can hear it already.

In the East Zone, a decision to put the school in Gateway would win the instant support of the Gateway community, southern Alva and a good part of northern Alva.

Put the school in Alva … and Gateway residents, who turned out in record numbers this past November to elect Gateway Services District candidates who had a community-first message, will also turn out in droves to make sure the LCSD doesn’t get any increase in tax dollars. Ever. Incensed Alva residents might literally protest in the streets, let alone agree to a tax increase.

But from a wider outlook, residents of Cape Coral and Bonita Springs and North Fort Myers could care less where the school is built. All they’re going to look at is a school board that had a decision to spend $X million, or $X+2 million for construction, and a similar question in regards to transportation.

Make the wrong choice, and the district won’t get much support from the rest of Lee County for a tax increase.

Sure, there are referendums and re-elections at stake. But more importantly the fate of the school itself is at risk.

If the district’s plan is to directly ask the tax payers for the money – regardless of whether it’s a sales tax, property tax, etc. – deciding to place the school in Alva might just mean there’s no school at all.

About Jeff Kuntz

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Editor of the Gateway Sun and owner of restaurant delivery service Florida Food Runner.

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