In 2017, School Board reinstates drug testing, considers building workforce housing

Hurricane Irma showed the need for School District staff housing.
Hurricane Irma showed the need for School District staff housing. Keynoter

The year 2017 for the Monroe County School District was capped by Irma.

The Sept. 10 Category 4 storm turned Florida Keys public schools into shelters of last resort as the School District responded to the Sept. 10 storm, which disrupted many students’ lives as thousands were displaced by the storm’s wreckage.

About a month after Irma, with an $80,000 donation to start, the Monroe County Education Foundation started a relief fund for the School District’s teachers and students. They can tap the relief fund to replace items lost during Hurricane Irma that government aid and insurance won’t replace, said Bryan Green, the foundation’s board president.

“Many are now struggling in temporary or severely damaged homes,” said Green. “Some students have lost school clothing and text books and all are faced with the practical and psychological effects of the storm.”

After a lengthy study period, the Monroe County School Board this year reinstated random drug testing for athletes, but the critical need for affordable workforce housing for employees later topped the list of prominent stories in 2017 along with the aftermath of Irma.

The Keys’ three traditional high schools began drug testing athletes and students in performance groups connected to sports, the School Board unanimously decided in April. The trial program will run for the 2017-18 school year only and the board would have to revisit the issue to keep it going longer.

“To now include all students who put themselves out on the field of play for physical exertion, we are no longer singling out the athletes,” said board member Andy Griffiths. “For me, this passes legal as well as moral muster. We are looking out for the safety of all of these students.”

Griffiths was the board member who later proposed the board build at least 20 affordable living units for school employees behind Sugarloaf School, spending its own money on a new neighborhood. But Superintendent Mark Porter cautioned such a project would take time and formed a task force to investigate options.

Next came philanthropist John Padget’s proposal to build units at Trumo Point in Key West, where the School Board has its headquarters on waterfront property.

Citing an urgent need for affordable workforce rentals, Padget says he will plunk down the money to design 480 apartments on eight acres along Trumbo Road. But government officials, including the School Board and city of Key West elected leaders, will have to take the action to make sure land-use regulations and permitting is allowed, Padget said.

“It’s simple,” Padget said. “I took advice from some people who will remain anonymous at the moment. I talked to some experts who said this is a reasonable proposal.”

But considering the tight building regulations in the Keys, Padget’s plan looks to confront numerous hurdles. He wrote in his proposal: “Waivers needed: height restrictions, density, no motor vehicle parking” and, apparently, bypassing the city’s rules on building permits.

In January the board unanimously decided Porter deserves his first raise since he was hired five years ago. He received three more years on the job plus a $15,000 raise and $650-per-month car allowance.

Porter made no comment on the contract extension when it was approved, nor did any of the five elected members. Porter, who moved to the Keys from Minnesota to take the job in 2012, now earns $165,000 a year.

Also this year, board member Bobby Highsmith was elected chairman while Mindy Conn was chosen as vice chairwoman.

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen