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Progress continues for new school in Lehigh

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Mar 3, 2021

news@breezenewspapers.com

The School Board of Lee County gave its vote of approval during a board meeting this week to continue moving forward with “J” elementary, as well as an expansion of “MM” middle school.

The school board unanimously approved the ranking of “J” elementary and expansion of “MM” middle school at its meeting last Tuesday for architectural services. The rankings were, in order, for ADG Architecture, LLC, RG Architects, P.A. and StudioPlus, LLC. By approving the ranking, it allows the district to enter into the negotiation process.

There was a great deal of discussion regarding the expansion and “J” elementary school at the board’s briefing meeting as a few were confused as why the agenda item was coming before them again.

“I don’t understand how you build a new school and have an expansion on top of that,” Board member Melisa Giovannelli said. “That should have all been included. I don’t understand this. I’m having a really hard time spending additional money.”

Operational Planning and Projects Executive Director Kathie Ebaugh said when they determined it was appropriate to build that additional building it was already too far down the process of building the current campus.

“Because we were getting ready to build J, we saw the opportunity to identify the same cost savings by having one architect and one construction management team without going back into the original contract and delaying time. We were too far down the process with the construction of the original MM,” she said.

The original building, MM, is scheduled to open in August. The additional building, adjacent to the building, will house an additional 12 classrooms, or 264 student stations as part of the elementary “J” because they are on the same site.

“When we originally built the MM campus, we provided the foundation and ability to expand into a new building, but didn’t add the new building at that time,” Ebaugh said. “We are finishing the construction that we prepared for, but not constructed for.”

The site of the new MM school is at 641 and 651 Sunrise Blvd. Ground was broken in September.

“As a board member I don’t recall anyone saying to me we are going to have to build this additional building in a couple of months,” Giovannelli said of her attending a ceremony in September.

According to Planning Growth & Capacity Director Dominic Gemelli a survey was approved by the Department of Education in 2016 to build middle school “MM,” which had nothing to do with the district ever relocating the Lehigh Acres Middle School.

When approved in 2016, it was placed in the district’s capital plan and brought before the board to be approved to be built. Since then, the district passed the half penny sales tax, which allowed them flexibility; therefore not needing the Department of Education’s approval.

Gemelli said they could go ahead and build, one the addition, and two “J,” which was not approved by DOE. Both of the schools are being built with local money, whether millage, or the half penny sales tax.

Director of Construction Project Management Scott Rickenbocker said there is mechanical rough-ins and electrical cabling in progress at Lehigh Acres “MM.” Building two has the first floor drywall 100 percent complete; second and third floors are beginning drywall and painting; painting and ceiling tiles are 90 percent complete and cabinet installations are in progress.

In addition, Rickenbocker said the central energy plant has permanent power and the other buildings are currently receiving temporary power from the plant.

Substantial completion has been tentatively set for July 15, 2021, although he said he believes it will be substantially completed by mid May. He said the school will be open and classes will be underway as they are constructing the expansion to the building.

“It will be erected during the school year,” Rickenbocker said.

With approval of architectural services, Rickenbocker said they will begin negotiating for the “J” building and the addition to the “MM” campus.

He explained that the addition will be on an existing building. Rickenbocker said they will punch through the exterior walls and connect it right in the stair tower of the existing building for 12 classrooms.

Board member Gwyn Gittens told the board that she went on a tour and it was excellent.

“I was really impressed with the planning committee for this school. A wonderful collaboration and as we continue to grow, we will get that much better of what we produce and have for our students,” she said.