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Extra Duval School Funds Could Keep Tech Plans Out Of Jeopardy

Rhema Thompson

An extra $18 million in Duval Schools capital funding could go toward saving one of the district's flagship initiatives and propelling several dozen other new projects.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told school board members Thursday that the millions in surplus capital dollars surfaced during a recent internal audit.

The money will help fund a major effort announced earlier this year to improve technology in classrooms across the district. The endeavor was initially intended to be paid entirely through a $50 million federal, no-interest bond known as a Qualified Zone Academy Bond(QZAB II). The district was awarded the money in August.

However, the district recently encountered a snag in that effort.

Vitti told board members this week that the district learned some of the schools slated to receive upgrades no longer qualify for the bond. That’s due to a change in Jacksonville’s status as a so-called “Empowerment Zone” site, a federally-recognized high-needs area.

“Our bond counsel went through the specifications of the QZAB II in our application, and it became clear that our Empowerment Zone designation expired at the end of the ‘12-13 year as a city,” Vitti said.

As a result, 16 schools, including Loretto Elementary, Fletcher High and Jacksonville Beach Elementary do not meet the socio-economic threshhold to receive QZAB dollars. That amounts to about $6.1 million in upgrades and resources, according to the district.

Vitti said he was unsure who was responsible for allowing the city’s designation to expire.

However, email correspondence from April 30 shows  the Florida Department of Education erroneously confirmed that all schools in the district qualified as part of the Empowerment Zone when asked by district personnel. 

The district is currently working with the City of Jacksonville Office and several other city agencies to regain the designation, Vitti said.

In the meantime, millions in newly surfaced funding could make up the difference, he said.

“We would use $6.1 of the $18 million surplus to allow these 16 schools to move forward with the original QZAB II project,” he said.

The bond money that can’t go toward the 16 schools will be shifted toward more technological resources and security measures in the schools that do qualify, he said.

He also proposed using some of the $18 million in capital surplus money toward placing a desktop or laptop computer in the hand of every public middle school student across the district and providing every high school teacher in Math, Language arts, History and Biology with a multimedia bundle including a audio-visual cart and an interactive whiteboard.

In addition to more technology upgrades, Vitti said the money should also be used toward replacing broken security cameras at nine schools and expediting more than 60 different maintenance and security projects.

“I think the list of projects that can be completed addresses quite a few deficiencies that really are relevant right now to moving forward with one to one device deployment in middle schools,” he said.

The excess capital funding came from the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, when final expenses fell below what was budgeted, according to Vitti. About $7.7 million of the funding rolled over from 2011-12 and $9.4 million from 2012-13.

Capital funds can only be used for projects related to district infrastructure.

But school board auditor Michelle Begley urged Vitti to take a step back before making plans on how to spend the newfound funding. She noted that there may be projects proposed in 2011-12 and 2012-13 that have yet to be completed.

“Even if you have excess funds, if those projects have not been completed as advertised, you have a problem,” she said.

New school board member Scott Shine said he supported Vitti’s recommendations but echoed similar concerns.

“I think anytime you move funds, we’ll need some peer review... to ensure that we’re doing the right thing,” he said.

Vitti said his team would review the funds with Begley.

“The most immediate need is the QZAB II schools,” he said. “I would not want to delay the projects related to those schools.”

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.