Commissioners bully School Board members

Suupposedly, the Lake County school district has an anti-bullying policy. So how did county commissioners intimidate board members into paying for a $250,000 “pilot project” that doesn’t have a point?

“I feel like a bully said, ‘Give me your lunch money or get beat up.’ If you give them the lunch money, what’s next?” School Board Chairman Marc Dodd asked.

And yet, cowed board members did hand over the proverbial cash so commissioners could nibble on a slice of cafeteria pizza and a tiny container of applesauce.

“If I don’t pay the ransom, kids will get held hostage for a new school,” Dodd said by way of explanation.

This is all part of a baffling scheme proposed by County Commissioner Leslie Campione, a longtime opponent of the impact fees that are used to build new schools to accommodate growth.

The School Board has agreed to pay up to $250,000 worth of impact fees this year — that covers 26 houses — in exchange for the county agreeing not to lower the fees for a year. The district desperately needs every nickel it can get to build schools, but commissioners are the ones who have the power to levy the fee — the district can only beg.

Consider that the schools have 19,205 elementary students enrolled but have room for only 18,295 in regular classrooms. And another growth spurt is beginning.

The impact fee currently is $9,324 for each single-family home. That’s radically high, but the cost of jamming a community full of subdivisions is high in plenty of other ways, too. Either newcomers whose children need the school have to pay the cost or residents who live here today get to do it. The third option is that Lake students pay: They get stuck in overcrowded classrooms and cafeterias eating lunch at 10:30 a.m. for many years to come.

Campione took it upon herself to negotiate the deal that would have the school district pay impact fees for qualifying homes in areas deemed “infill.” On Tuesday, commissioners set a public hearing on the “pilot project” for May 9.

But what’s the point? To prove that people are willing to buy lots in older neighborhoods in exchange for saving a cool $9,000 on the total price of the house? To provide affordable housing?

Campione says it’s both, but it’s really neither.

There is no guarantee buyers ever will save anything at all under Campione’s scheme. Builders will set the price according to what the market will bear, not at $9,000 less. The only guarantee in this is a $9,000 profit window for the builder. And that means there’s also no guarantee of “affordable” housing.

If the goal is to push new growth into places where services such as sewer and water already are offered — and the school bus already stops there — the county already has the legal authority to do that. But commissioners will never do it because it means they would have to say “no” to the development interests that funded their campaigns.

If the real goal is either of Campione’s explanations, Dodd pointed out, why would a new home in the swanky golf community of Bishop’s Gate with a marina on Lake Harris in Howey-in-the-Hills qualify? Is $300,000 suddenly considered “affordable”? Or what about the 28 lakefront lots of up to five acres each in remote Paisley? Anything at all in rural Paisley is “infill”? Seriously?

So what’s really going on here? Perhaps this is just a heavy-handed reminder to School Board members that — at least on this issue — commissioners hold all the power.

Campione said success of project would be measured by “the issuance of permits for homes in older neighborhoods where little activity or revitalization is occurring.”

As usual, success equals more growth in the mind of the commissioner.

Here’s what genuine success is: It’s when someone other than residents who live here today pay for the cost of building new schools needed to keep up with growth. It’s when county commissioners start representing students, not developers.

“Success” never involves forcing the School Board to pay impact fees for people who want to move here, not even as a “pilot project.”