Gateway Sun

Supporters of the proposed new high school in Gateway have been working since the spring to try to convince the Lee County School District that the Griffin Road site is the perfect spot to build it’s next school.

In Alva, they’ve been plotting for years.

“Promoting the Alva site began in 2014 when we invited two county level administrators to talk to us about rising school populations,” said Ruby Daniels, President of Alva Inc.

In response to a Gateway Sun article earlier this year, Daniels told us via email: “I received a copy of your article concerning Alva, Inc. and two of its members, Darren Watkins and Don Ruane. I want to respond to the statements therein.”

The subject line of Daniels’ email was – and this is true – “Crazy Gateway Parents”.

While we strongly disagree with Daniels that Gateway’s parents are “crazy”, Daniels is correct that we have written about Watkins and Ruane on multiple occasions.

Watkins is the Alva Inc. board member who is also part of the school district’s Construction Advisory Committee. The CAC was the group that formally evaluated the Gateway and Alva sites. That group voted 9-1 to put the school in Gateway, with Watkins being the lone vote in Alva’s favor.

Ruane, for his part, made the following statement on social media a few days after the Site Selection Committee – the final LCSD committee to weigh in on the new school – voted 9-0 to place the school in Gateway: I’ll be out of the loop for a couple of days while I analyze more than 250 school district records for insights in to the site selection process. Call on Ruby [Daniels] or Kendra [Scott] if you have questions information to share. Also, a certain misinformed blogger from south of SR 82 keeps saying Darren Watkins is part of the steering committee for Alva Inc’s site proposal and Alva Inc’s board of directors. He is not a member of either group.

Darren Watkins is listed as a member of the Alva Inc board in every issue of the Alva Inc newsletter from October 2016 through May 2017. The November 2016 issue also contains the most recently published list of the members of the steering committee, and Watkins’ name is on that as well.

Ruane is the editor of the newsletter and therefore the very source of the information he says we’re incorrect about.

We asked Scott, who is also a member of the steering committee, why Ruane was downplaying Watkins role in Alva Inc., and Scott’s response was, “A very valid question.”

Scott has been a staunch defender and supporter of Watkins throughout the entire site selection process.

On May 9, the day after the most recent Alva Inc. meeting, Scott said, “Thank you to Darren Watkins for his professional report last night about issues of import re the next [East Zone High School]. It is so true that the scores of a matrix do not always tell the whole story. I’m confident any new pending and corrected factors will be considered by our elected school board officials. Again, nicely done, Mr. Watkins.”

By that point we had already heard that Watkins attempted to derail the year’s worth of work done by the Construction Advisory Committee at the committee’s May 3 meeting.

“There was a little discussion before the vote, lead by [Watkins]. He said the CAC didn’t have all the information they needed to make informed decisions, such as drainage reports and distance and response times of fire/police,” said one person at the meeting who requested anonymity.

Gregory Blurton, the school district’s Director of Planning, Growth & School Capacity told the Sun via email: During discussion [Watkins] expressed his dissatisfaction with the results of the scoring (Gateway’s 3,037 to Alva’s 2,343) and attributed it to criteria and factors he thought only experts in those areas would understand, such as site drainage. The other Committee members in attendance respected his opinion but disagreed citing 1) most if not all of them have expertise and/or experience in the construction industry; 2) the site selection process was inclusive and informative with the January 11, 2017, and February 1, 2017, meetings dedicated to the matrix, how it is used and relevant to each site, and the two site visits on March 1, 2017, at Griffin Dr. and March 2, 2017, at Joel/Tuckahoe with staff to see firsthand how each site compares to each other and the criteria/factors of the matrix (see the minutes here: http://www.leeschools.net/construction-advisory-committee). Each of those meetings ended with requests to Committee members to contact staff with questions, clarifications or concerns. We didn’t receive any calls or emails.

After the CAC vote came down 9-1 we figured Watkins would get the hint. But alas, there he was at the Alva Inc. meeting a few days later continuing the throw his own committee under the bus.

The school district recently announced they would be hosting a public forum on the topic of where to place the next high school on May 31 at 6:00pm at Lehigh Senior High School. This left a lot of observers confused since the public has already been extremely vocal throughout the process and the various LCSD committees have been extremely patient and allowing everyone from both sides to be heard.

It really does seem that everything that could possibly be said has already been said.

Well, except for the “new pending and corrected factors” that Watkins came up with at the May 8 meeting of Alva Inc.

Considering the fact that it was the Alva community’s LCSD board member in District 5, Pam LaRiviere, who arranged for the forum to take place … many in Gateway were immediately suspicious. However, LaRiviere had already suggested a public forum back on April 18.

On that date Ruane was describing a meeting he had with LaRiviere. Ruane excitedly told his supporters that LaRiviere said a Gateway school building would be three stories high, while in Alva the LCSD would only build a two-story building (and thus a lesser visual impact from the school on the surrounding environment).

LaRiviere responded to Ruane saying, “Just to clarify … I mentioned that the site chosen would suggest the design of the school. For example, since there is less acreage at the SR82/Griffin Rd. site the design would LIKELY be 3 stories. While the Joel/Tuckahoe would [have] other considerations. I don’t believe I mentioned a 2 story building. There are no particular leanings at this time. I will be requesting dates and locations for public forums to be held.”

So obviously LaRiviere did not set up a public forum for her fellow board members to hear Watkins’ alternative facts or for Ruane to present his findings from going in to hiding and researching 250 documents regarding the site selection process. LaRiviere had already stated she wanted a public forum several weeks prior.

But that doesn’t mean Ruane and Watkins will waste the opportunity presented by the forum. And neither should Gateway.

“Honestly, I am not even sure what this May 31st meeting is for. It seemed to ‘pop up’ out of no where,” said Gateway lead organizer John Heck.

“So besides the usual support reasons we all know about, budgetary, safety, population, community wants and needs, the reason to show up at this meeting is to thwart any sleazy attempt at torturing and molesting the data to make Alva look like a reasonable and logical choice,” Heck added.

In addition to Alva Inc. sending unsolicited mail pieces to Gateway residents in an attempt to create anger in Gateway toward the LCSD, Heck is also referring to the fact that 1,825 students in grades 5 to 9 live within two miles of the Gateway site compared to 185 within two miles of Alva, as well as the reality that construction and transportation costs will both be millions of dollars less if the school is built in Gateway. Utilities are already present at the Gateway site, whereas the nearest water main from the Alva site is 10 miles away and a sewage processing plant would need to be built at the Alva site.

An LCSD official told the Sun that “four or five” board members will be in attendance at the public forum. The format will be a “brief summary of the process. Where we’ve been, are and going forward. The majority of the forum will be public comment.”

Organizers of the Gateway High School Support Group are asking all Gateway parents (even the “crazy” ones) to attend the May 31 public forum at Lehigh Senior. You are highly encouraged to bring your children, especially those who are school-aged and will be affected by the LCSD’s decision.

Gateway organizers have only asked us to publicize a meeting one other time: for the Construction Advisory Committee’s visit to the Gateway site on March 1.

That day, a Tuesday afternoon at 3pm, over a hundred people held a rally in the middle of a field to tell the CAC how strongly they felt about a Gateway school. It had to have made an impression, and the CAC’s evaluation has played a huge role in the process so far.

This time, Gateway organizers would like you to attend the forum next Wednesday at 6pm at Lehigh Senior.

Even if you don’t wish to speak or address the LCSD, just being there in person will represent your interests in placing the school in our community – and will be noticed by the board members in attendance.

Lehigh Senior High School is located at 901 Gunnery Road North, Lehigh Acres, FL, 33971.

Again, the public forum is next Wednesday, May 31, at 6pm.

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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