By Barry Gwinn
At their regularly scheduled June 12 meeting, the Collier County School Board (CCSB) unanimously approved an award of just over $1.25M to be used for capital construction and additional safety features at Marco Island Academy (MIA). The award serves as a settlement of a long running dispute between MIA and the CCSB in which MIA has sought, unsuccessfully, to gain access to a site known as Tract K in order to build a permanent high school. The amount is termed as an advance payment to MIA for its share of an anticipated sale of the property to the Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation.
Tract K, consisting of 11.6 undeveloped acres, has been owned by the CCSB since 1989 and is the last remaining large undeveloped parcel of land in Marco Island. In return for the money, MIA will give up all future claims to the property and to any proceeds of its sale by the county to a third party. The tract consists of 11.6 acres of mostly Australian pines at 665 Tiger Tail Court and a couple of nesting eagles. It was the eagles that threw a monkey wrench into MIA’s attempts to gain access to the tract.
MIA first approached the CCSB about this in 2009, but the board rejected MIA’s proposals and instead, granted a couple of consecutive lease/purchase agreements to the Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation, the last of which expires in 2021.
In the meantime, MIA never gave up in its attempts to build a permanent school building and had persisted in asking (some called it badgering) the CCSB to give them some assistance. With the support of only two of the five CCSB members, the school seemed to be getting no closer to MIA Board Chair Jane Watt’s dream of a permanent and secure building for MIA’s students. The school had been muddling along with 14 separate modular classrooms since 2012.
Ironically, it was Hurricane Irma which finally got things off the schneide. A direct hit by the Cat 4 hurricane not only damaged many of the modular classrooms, but also laid bare the fact that residents of Marco Island had no public storm shelter in which to take refuge.
After Irma, MIA Board Chair Jane Watt stepped up her contacts with Marco Island city council members and told them of MIA’s plans to build its new combination gymnasium and auditorium in compliance with state storm shelter standards. In addition, it became apparent that there were not enough public areas to be used as “cooling stations” with access to air conditioning for the community after the storm. “What if we could work together to offer a solution to both of these problems?” Watt asked. None of this was lost on the Marco Island City Council, who began to spearhead community support for the building of a “safe and secure” permanent high school. Watt was finally able to tell her board that the Marco Island City Council had made the building of a permanent school one of their legislative priorities.
The MI City Council approached state legislators for $8.1M (an amount based on an estimate provided to the school several years ago) to proceed with the construction. One of the legislators, Representative Byron Donalds, recommended that the city make the request to the CCSB first. It was added to the agenda for the March 27, 2018 CCSB meeting held in Everglades City.
As expected, the request for the $8.1M failed by a vote of 2 to 3, even after numerous Marco Island residents rose to speak in favor of it. Three Marco Island city councilmen were also there. Councilman Victor Rios had done his homework. “Twenty years ago, we had a Collier County School Board which gave $17 million to Marco Island to build our Charter Middle School,” Rios said, “That is more than double what we were looking for here. We in Marco Island give $51.1 million to the School Board and get less than $20 million back. Many of my constituents are unhappy with this.” If we ever get the money to build the school, Rios concluded, the objective is to have a safe and secure place for our students as well as a shelter to serve all of our residents.
After the vote, Board Chair Roy Terry, apparently moved by the eloquence and passion of the many that came down from Marco Island in support of the city’s request, got unanimous support for a motion to advance MIA’s portion of the forthcoming proceeds from the imminent sale of Tract K.
Moving at warp speed, the CCSB staff sent over a proposed agreement to the MIA board, which stated that MIA’s share had been determined to be $1,258,374 and would be payable by June 29, 2018, providing MIA gave up its claim to Tract K. In a special meeting of the MIA board on May 7, Board Chair Jane Watt presented the agreement for approval. “While the offer is much less than we had hoped, it is better than nothing,” she said, “We’re not likely to get an offer like this again. Now that the school board has turned us down [for the $8.1M] we will be able to ask the state for assistance.” After a spirited discussion, the MIA board unanimously approved the agreement.
Watt hopes that this sudden injection of funds will give new impetus to a fundraising drive for the new building. “Depending on the success of the capital campaign and potential help from the state, we could break ground as soon as next summer,” she said.