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Now will Black and Brown Children in Lee County Get Free and Appropriate Education?

In what has been an exhausting fight with many Lee County School Board Members, on Tuesday, November 16th, at the School Board Meeting, the Board Members voted 7-0 to halt the construction on a new K-8 school building in Estero.

The process to build in Estero began in 2017 with a land purchase next to the existing Estero High School. Supposedly the student population growth rate in Estero warranted the building of this new school in the predominantly white area of Estero.

But, listening to Board Member Gwyn Gittens repeated requests for data that proved this new school should be built in Estero fall on deaf ears by the other School Board Members and the Administration, compelled a group of community members, myself included, to assess the situation starting many, many months ago.

Mrs. Gittens represents District 5 in the East Zone of Lee County, an area with 50% Hispanic, 25% black, and 25% white where children have been learning in portables for 25 to 30 years.

The big question that the District and other Board Members refused to answer was how they arrived at a student growth population numbers in Estero that warranted a new school to be built.

Public records requests were submitted by many community members, and Mrs. Gittens asked for this information at what seems like each and every Board Meeting. When a question like that fails to be answered, it raises suspicions, and rightly so.

At the end of October, frustrated by our attempts through public comments at Board Meetings and through emails, to get the Board and the Administration to provide the factual information requested, the President of the US-FL Guatemalan-Mayan Chamber of Commerce in Lee County, Mr. Mario Juarez and a group of concerned citizens, myself included, sent a letter to the Office of Civil Rights requesting an investigation of Board Member Chris Patricca who represents District 3 of Estero, and the School District.

We want to believe that there was no malfeasance involved with the building of the new school in Estero.

But, when you have Board Member Patricca stating that she gave five talks a day to get the half-cent sales tax passed and she herself negotiated building the school in Estero with the Estero Village Council, and when Dr. Ken Savage presented on May 4th, 2020 and stated that Estero did not need a building and the East Zone did, it leaves us to question whether the School Board Members and Administrators are acting in a transparent manner.

You may recall that during the 2018 elections, the half-cent sales tax was on the ballot as a referendum. The school district had it placed on the ballot because if it passed it would assist the District with building and renovating schools.

Since 2019, the District has collected well over $200 million dollars from the half-cent sales tax. Some have argued that the half-cent sales tax was unnecessary. I will argue that whether unnecessary or not, the money needs to be spent accordingly, and the district should be held accountable for providing actual, factual numbers to the public on where and how this money is spent. It is after all, our money.

On November 16th, 2021, a presentation was given by the Business and Planning Departments as a means of discussing whether the building in Estero should be built.

It was unimpressive to see that the presentation included approximate numbers regarding student growth and not actual, factual numbers which the School District has in its possession. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, none of the School Board Members questioned the fact that approximate numbers were provided.

Moving forward, I suggest that approximate numbers should never be provided when the district has the actual, factual numbers. Percentages do you have an interesting way of changing the outcome of math.

One Board Member did ask a key question. How many students through school choice are attending Three Oaks Elementary, Three Oaks Middle School, and Pine Woods Elementary all located in the Estero as opposed to the school that is located in their area in which they live?

The thought process is that perhaps the student growth numbers in Estero were bolstered by students from other areas attending one of those three schools. This information has been requested but has not been provided as of yet.

I believe before any new buildings are built a needs assessment should be conducted for every school in the county. All children are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Education, FAPE, per federal law. As such, all school buildings should have the same amenities.

For example, state of the art libraries, gymnasiums, playing fields, auditoriums equipped with audio and visual, cafeterias, and science labs. And yes, certain schools need additions and or renovations to get our children out of those portables.

I can only hope that the current School Board and Administration is coming to the conclusion that the community is very awake and is tracking them very closely and rating their job performance.

Election year 2022 is right around the corner, and we the people want School Board Members that will hold themselves accountable and bring ethics and integrity to the District because all children are equally important.

There is power in being a community member that is involved. We have the civic authority to hold the powers-that-be accountable. Let us keep our eyes open and watch very closely at what happens in the future and be ready to take action if the situation in the East Zone is not addressed.

This was a huge win for all of the children!


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