Busin Votes Against Spending $3,600,000 to Buy Pasture for Future Site of LaBelle High School

I read an article published this week by the Caloosa Belle regarding the proposed future site of LaBelle High School which noted that I voted against the superintendent’s recommendation to purchase the site. The article heralded the perceived virtues of this purchase and omitted examples of concerns I referred to as common sense red flags (🚩) during the board discussion, and prior to casting the lone dissenting vote on a proposed $3,600,000 contract for 80 acres of pasture that was negotiated by Supt. Swindle.

Florida law requires that all legitimate offers and counteroffers be in writing for the state-funded acquisition of land. 🚩 No supporting documentation was provided that indicated negotiations occurred outside of accepting the initial contract from the seller’s agent for $45,000/acre. There was no counteroffer to the initial offer presented by the seller’s agent. Even if a counteroffer were declined, at the very minimum, it would have indicated a good faith effort to negotiate in the best interest of taxpayers

If an individual was seeking to purchase property and didn’t have the cash on hand to buy it, one would typically seek a loan from a financial lending institution. This is essentially what Hendry County School District (HCSD) is attempting to do through the Florida Dept of Education (FLDOE) by applying for special facilities funding designated to help poor, rural counties lacking the tax base to generate sufficient taxes to replace and/or build new schools. It was a no brainer to apply for this funding to build a new campus in order meet the seemingly ever growing enrollment at LaBelle High School. It’s the same program Glades County School District has used to build West Glades School, as well as replace Moore Haven Jr/Sr High School, and Moore Haven Elementary.

In order to apply for this special facilities funding, Florida law required HCSD to obtain two appraisals to determine the value of the 80+/- acre property, as a taxpayer protection against wasteful spending. These appraisals have standards and protocols that financially protect the lender (taxpayer funded FLDOE) as well as the buyer (taxpayer funded HCSD).🚩 The superintendent sought three appraisals of the property. The appraised values are listed below and linked to the appraisals received by the Board for review:

Calusa Appraisal: $1,450,000

Carlton Norris: $2,000,000

Wegscheid Appraisal: $3,600,000

It would be incredibly unrealistic to expect three separate appraisals to yield the same appraised values but multiple appraisals should fall within a reasonably justifiable range. 🚩 Wegscheid’s appraisal, valued exactly at the contract price, exceeded Carlton Norris’ by $1,600,000 and Calusa’s by $2,150,000.

If this were an ordinary citizen’s personal or business transaction, the lending institution would likely disqualify the highest of three appraisals due to the fact that it’s such a significant outlier. The ordinary buyer would either have to renegotiate the contract price or find another way to raise the $1,875,000 difference. 🚩 Superintendent Swindle said he averaged the highest appraisal (outlier) and the second highest appraisal to come up with an “appraised value” of $2,800,000; $800,000 less than the contract price. His proposal to fund the $800,000 difference will utilize future funding generated by the new 1/2 cent sales tax on residents of a county that meets the challenged economic criteria to qualify for special facilities funding.

The final 🚩 for me was discovering that the seller’s agent, who would collect a commission based on the sales price, is the superintendent’s former brother-in-law and the co-manager of the real estate brokerage is the superintendent’s nephew.

Special facilities funding from the FLDOE will not provide all of the funding for this project. If it is approved by the FLDOE, every dollar of special facilities funding used for the purchase of land over appraised value will divert state funds from being directed to the construction of spaces for students to learn and grow academically, socially, and athletically. The funds generated by the 1/2 cent sales tax will be applied towards paying the balance of the total cost for completing the project, and the higher that total is, the less funding will be available to be applied to other critical needs areas/projects in an expeditious manner.

My individual understanding of the basic principles of government and economics didn’t justify my support of Supt. Swindle’s recommendation so I voted against it. The superintendent’s recommendation received the super majority vote (4-1 vote on a five person board) required by Florida law to approve a contract for purchase of land over appraised value. 🍏

About Stephanie Busin

Mother. Wife. Rural Education Activist. Status Quo Challenger. Hendry County School Board Member, District 4. Born for the Storm. Saved by Grace.

Posted on January 26, 2023, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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