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Community Envisioning Workshop set for March

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Mar 3, 2021


A community envisioning workshop has been scheduled at Veteran Park Academy for the Arts at the end of March to both share information about the expansion/merger project and engage input from the community.

Operational Planning and Projects Executive Director Kathie Ebaugh said they want to develop and receive community input and concessions about how they should merge the two campuses, the old Lehigh Acres Middle School and VPAA, to meet the needs of the community.

“It’s not a merger of the schools as one school, but a sharing of identity and sharing of resources as a way to make sense with what will become of the old LAMS campus and VPAA,” she said.

Ebaugh said they are still tossing around the idea of sharing arts programs, whether it happens at one school, a large school, or two campuses. In terms of naming the campus, that too is still up for discussion and evaluation.

Ebaugh said they have contract negotiations with the architect, construction management and building official. She said she is excited they are under contract negotiations because they can be apart of the discussion and take that information and build it into their efforts to design and construct a campus that meets the needs of what the community is asking for.

“The public input process that we are going to look at will take us a couple of months as we go through and talk to VPAA staff, parents and talk to the Greater Lehigh Acres community,” Ebaugh said.

The Community Vision Workshop will be held Tuesday, March 30, at the Veterans Park Academy for the Arts Star Cafe. The priority is to provide information, learn and listen to options and prioritize with the community of what they see as the future.

Ebaugh said they wanted to hold it later in March, so they have the opportunity to reach out to diverse groups and reach as many people as they can.

Community Engagement Coordinator Adam Molloy said the public input components is a communication position for the school district.

“As a school district, we are mandated to listen as stewards of the community,” he said, adding that they really want to prioritize and listen in a formal way to hear the community’s perspective on the VPAA project.

The March 30 workshop will inform, identify critical questions, have a brief presentation of the considerations of the campus, as well as break into small groups with district staff.

“The entire goal is to understand the community’s expectations for the VPAA project and process feedback and present it to the board,” Molloy said. “This is something, I think, we need to do more of. The pay off will be huge. Our general philosophy of proper school and community development is only possible when people have a voice in the conversation.”

He went on to say that the project will only be as successful and strong as their connection to the community in the Lehigh Acres area.

The hope is to bring feedback to the board on April 13.

Superintendent of Schools Greg Adkins said work will also be done behind the scenes with the chiefs of academic services. He said they want education to drive the decision with what is best from an educational perspective as far as what programs will be offered.

The board will “have that perspective prior to making a final decision to what direction the board wants to go in terms of that campus,” Adkins said.

Once the presentation near the end, a discussion began surrounding the “black box theater” idea, as well as portables in the East Zone and equity.

Board member Gwyn Gittens said it seems as though the idea of a black box theater is driving everything.

Adkins said he did not agree with the characterization of the black box theater driving the decision making.

“The biggest driver is we need to respond to growth in the East Zone. Second it is important for us to do something for the facility, which is currently Lehigh Acres Middle School,” he said.

Gittens further showed concern about portables. She said she honestly feels that equity starts with getting rid of portables and putting more students in a brick and mortar school. She said that is her main concern, a priority.

Adkins responded by saying that is one of their highest priorities.

“It was addressed in growth in that zone and by taking care of renovating a facility that needs to be taken care of. That is providing equity as well,” he said. “Our students deserve to go to a facility that is similar to what we see surrounding that particular building. We are addressing growth and a need of renovation that is long past overdue.”

Gittens further stated that when giving students in other parts of the district an equitable arts experience they do not have as many classes in temporary portable situations.

“We have had these issues with portables in other zones. My question is why do we continue to come back and readdress this. We have answered that question,” Adkins said. 

A discussion then began between two board members.

Board member Chris Patricca said as she sits in the board meetings week after week, she hears Gittens’ passion and desire, but she is trying to find a way to support her.

“I am not clear in how to do that,” she said. “They just brought us a presentation and answer to your request of community engagement, and yet there still was some criticism of it. I don’t know how to have this conversation. I really want to reach common ground. I really want to find a way to compromise and move forward.”

Patricca said each meeting portables and equity is questioned for the East Zone.

“I believe that has been addressed. It has been addressed to my satisfaction,” she said. “I’m trying to get to a place where we both understand the same information in the same way. I would like to understand, so I can be where you are.”

Gittens responded by saying this district has been in effect for well over 130 something years. She said sometimes organizations as they grow have to stoop, look and listen at differences, which is the only way things can be possibly done differently.

“I am about equity, inclusion and communication. That has not happened unless everyone is allowed to participate,” Gittens said. “I am not allowed to participate the way many of you are. I know that for a fact.”

She said she believes in her heart and soul if she did not continue to ask questions and bring up those topics, the development of new processes would not take place.

Molloy said Gittens’ passion and goal to change and tailor how they engage the community together is a bond that is reciprocated from him and his team’s position.