The word “excited” frequently springs from the lips of both Village of Estero and Lee County School District officials as they explain the energy behind an unprecedented spirit of cooperation. As Estero — the state’s newest municipality — enjoys a budget surplus of $17 million, the School District of Lee County — the state’s ninth largest school district — is feeling the squeeze of dwindling revenues at a time when the district is growing at a pace of 1,600 students a year.

As part of developing its Comprehensive Plan, the Village has reached out to the school district for input on planning future schools and recreational amenities within Estero’s boundaries. Simultaneously, school district representatives have been seeking community partnerships to help fund capital projects.

Recent discussions include site selection for two new schools in Estero, as well as possibilities for colocating future resources, which could include recreational facilities to serve as venues for youth sports, continuing education and wellness programming.

“Personally, I feel there are very little things more important than the education of our youth and how it impacts the city and the community,” says Nick Batos, Village Council liaison to Lee County Schools. “I am very excited about the possibilities of working with the school district.”

To keep up with projected population growth, the district needs to build nine schools in the next five years, including the new Bonita Springs High School currently under construction and a new elementary and middle school in the district’s South Zone. The district owns 70 acres off of Three Oaks Parkway near the Estero Post Office, southeast of the Copper Oaks community.

While this might be the obvious site to build new schools and recreational facilities, the district is seeking community input and not ruling out the possibility of a land swap if the Village would rather have schools built elsewhere, explains Gregory Blurton, the district’s Director for Planning, Growth and School Capacity.

“We’re thinking out of the box because we have this opportunity with a new village,” he says. “It’s exciting to have this kind of relationship, and we want to be good partners.”

Blurton regularly meets with Estero Village Manager Steve Sarkozy, while Councilman Batos meets with School Board member Chris Patricca.

“I see an amazing opportunity to become part of the foundation for the Village,” says Patricca, an Estero resident and mother of three children in Lee County schools.

Since joining the school board last year, her eyes have been opened to the capital crisis the district faces for building new schools and maintaining facilities. The economic recession brought lowered property values, resulting in less tax revenues. Then Lee County cut impact fees on construction, meaning new development hasn’t been paying its share of the expenses that population growth brings to the school district. The State of Florida also has decreased its property tax distribution for schools. All of this has resulted in a loss of $638 million in revenues to the Lee County School District since 2007-08, reports Patricca.

Now Gov. Rick Scott has signed a bill (HB7069) which will further strip public schools of funding, giving a greater share to charter schools. In July, the Lee County School Board voted to join several other Florida school districts in suing the state.

“We project that over five years we will lose $45 million in capital funds due to HB7069,” reports Lee County Schools Communications Director Lauren Stillwell.

This makes community partnerships more valuable than ever.

“The state isn’t giving us what we need to build our schools so we are having to provide what we need locally,” asserts Patricca. “Partnerships with municipalities and businesses are huge for us.”

Fortunately for the school district, its capital crisis comes at a time when the Village of Estero is not only financially solvent but millions of dollars ahead of initial projections for reserve funds. Additionally, the Village is eagerly exploring community partnerships as part of its long-range planning process.

In April, the Village’s Planning and Zoning Board welcomed a presentation by Patricca and Marc Mora, Lee County Schools’ Director of Operational Planning, outlining shared interests and opportunities for cooperation. Patricca envisions future colocated facilities similar to the way Lexington Middle School shares athletic fields with Lee County’s Wa-Ke Hatchee Park Recreation Center.

“I’m excited at where this could go,” she says.

According to the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), a municipality the size of Estero should have 285 acres of parkland; the Village currently falls short by 26 acres —without accounting for future growth from thousands of new homes and apartments currently under construction, says Ed Weil, chairman of a Parks /Recreation/Education Coalition consisting of local school administrators, teachers, parents and Estero business owners.

About 350 kids from Estero play Cal Ripkin Baseball in Naples, he notes. That’s enough to start an Estero league, but there are no baseball facilities here. Similarly, Estero lacks an aquatic center for competitive swimmers.

“We understand what our needs are, but no one has any money,” Weil says. “Everyone is learning they must work together to get things done.”

The spirit of cooperation isn’t limited to recreational facilities. Batos believes the Village could help local schools with educational programing and community volunteerism.

“I think it’s a rather unique experience that a municipality is delving into this,” he says. “We are trying to explore what areas are possible where the Village and the school district can work together to enhance the quality of our schools.”

In addition to long-range planning with the school district, Batos is meeting with the principals of Estero’s four local schools (Pinewoods Elementary, Three Oaks Elementary, Three Oaks Middle School and Estero High School) to see how each might benefit from community partnerships.

Overcrowding has become an issue at all four schools, but relief is coming to Estero High with the opening of Bonita Springs High School this school year. The freshman class is currently housed on a portable campus behind Estero High’s athletic fields, but Bonita’s new building is scheduled for completion by next school year. As a result, Estero’s enrollment is projected to drop from 1,781 this school year to 1,628 in 2018-19, reports Stillwell.

Both Estero’s principal, Clayton Simmons, and Bonita’s principal, Jeff Estes, are graduates of Lee County schools and are committed to the district’s success. Estes, an Estero High grad who most recently served as assistant principal of East Lee County High School, considers Simmons a mentor and the new Bonita Springs High a “sister school” to Estero.

“It’s a spin-off,” he says, “Students are going to get a stellar education either way.”

The two principals anticipate most students in South Lee County will choose to attend either Bonita or Estero based on proximity to home, making each school a bit more of a “neighborhood school.”

However, there may be reasons for students to choose one school over the other via Lee County’s School Choice system. Estero High offers the internationally recognized Cambridge program for high-achieving students, while Bonita will offer the district’s first partnership with FGCU for full-time dual enrollment. Both programs enable students to graduate high school with up to 60 college credits.

Bonita also will be home to the districts first Aeronautical Academy in partnership with Embry-Riddle Gaetz Aerospace Institute.

“If you want to be a chef, Estero has an amazing culinary program,” notes Estes. “If you want to fly a plane, you’re going to want an aerospace academy.”

Lee County’s school choice system has often gotten a bad rap. Case in point: the Naples-based realty firm employed by Hertz steered relocating executives to Collier County, where a student’s address determines their school. This is why the Lee County School District also is seeking partnership with local realtors. Blurton has been meeting with Joe Pavich Sr., incoming president for the Bonita-Estero Association of Realtors (BEAR), to ensure local real estate agents understand the benefits of school choice.

“It wasn’t fair people got that information from realtors and didn’t understand the school choice program as they should have,” says Pavich. “I would like to promote a better relationship with the school board and the Board of Realtors. We’re the first point of contact when people move to town.”

Patricca encourages community partnership at all levels, down to the individuals who call Estero home.

“I don’t think there is any better way to get involved with the community than to help a child,” she says. “There are so many opportunities to volunteer in our schools.”

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