Taken from a bird’s eye view, Hurricane Michael not only damaged all four public schools but ripped off a few band-aids that had kept aging buildings operational.
Now, new stitching, and a lot of it, will be needed.
The Gulf County School Board listened to a presentation from a current vendor, Johnson Controls, regarding the operational issues facing the district and one suggested process for identifying a partner to assist the district forward.
Board members seemed poised to move ahead on a Design-Build Fund program to effect improvements in operations and costs district-wide, a district it should be noted that has no school sites younger than 50 years.
“Hurricane Michael did a significant amount of damage to Gulf County schools,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton. “Our problems exist at all schools.
“Fortunately, we are well-insured. But in addition to damage from the storm, Hurricane Michael exposed other problems.”
Such as patches to air conditioning, heating and piping down the generations to keep schools running, damage beneath the shell of the Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School roof and the degradation to water systems due to changes in city water over the decades.
As a result, the School Board is facing tough, and costly, decisions, the first relieving staff of the workload that has come, and will continue to come, as the rebuild from Michael unfolds.
In short, Norton said, the School Board needs a collaborator to properly accomplish the tasks ahead.
The district has already had to spend $400,000 to replace a chilling tower at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School, a replacement which ultimately revealed the need to replace a condenser to the tune of $200,000.
The board will be asked to act under an emergency declaration to replace the condenser immediately instead of paying $10,000 per month for the rest of the school year for a temporary unit, the yellow hoses of which can be seen snaking into the front of “The Dome.”
In addition, after initial offers from insurance regarding the roofs at the two high schools were not in the ballpark, Norton said, structural engineers have assessed both roofs.
Both were deemed at least 25 percent damaged, in Port St. Joe the damage was more than 40 percent, which by law requires a replacement roof; Norton said indications are insurance will cover the costs.
The two schools will also see new tracks: the district earmarked money for the Wewahitchka track and insurance or FEMA will cover the replacement costs in Port St. Joe.
The district is waiting on reimbursement for Port St. Joe to schedule new track construction in both ends of the county at the same time with an eye on holding down costs.
In total, Norton said the insurance costs from Michael will land between $14 million and $16 million.
And, the district lacks the manpower to handle what will be required to move forward on rebuilding the district.
The Design Build Fund program has been in existence in Florida since 1994 and is similar to continuing contracts for such things as engineering.
The first step will be to have an engineer to assess all district needs, establish specifications and an estimate of what equipment and effort the district would have to undertake with an eye on reducing operational costs.
The district, for example, currently pays between $600,000 and $700,000 a year on utilities alone.
The goal would be realizing significant savings in that and other areas.
After the engineering assessment, the district would use those specifications and recommendations to seek Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for a firm to assist in the Design Build Fund program.
The program is designed to pay for itself moving forward through cost savings under any plan and there is grant funding the district will pursue.
Additionally, the district has left nearly a mill in local capital outlay funding on the table for nearly a decade and could increase the levy with a board vote to mitigate costs.
None of it, however, will happen overnight: from initiating the process to implementation would likely take as long as two years.
But, for the School Board, the steps must be undertaken.
“It’s time we picked up the can we’ve been kicking down the road,” said Board chair Brooke Wooten. “It’s time to make some improvements.”