Energy Specialist/Special Projects manager Johnny Golden says 90 percent of the live oak trees on the construction site of the new Lee County Elementary School will not be removed, but included in the landscaping design.
LEESBURG -- When the new Lee County Elementary School campus is completed in August of 2013, visitors can prepare to come face-to-face with "George Washington" or "Thomas Jefferson" or "John Adams" or "Abraham Lincoln ..."
No, Lee County students and parents won't be visited by the ghosts of presidents past, but they will get to admire the majesty of live oak trees that, if school officials stick to the early stages of a unique plan for the school's 40-acre site, will bear the names of the presidents who were in office at the time of the various trees' introduction to the land.
"There are about 16 of what arborists are calling 'specimen trees' on the site that are somewhere between 75 and 225 years old," Lee County School Superintendent Larry Walters said Wednesday, a day after the Lee School Board approved a "maximum bid" on the projected $14.4 million school by Leesburg-based Kinney Construction Co. "These live oaks are very unique examples of our state tree, and we're going to do everything we can to preserve them.
"If you visit the site now, the trees are protected by chain-link fences that extend all the way out to their 'drip line.' These are really impressive trees, and in that beautiful setting we've decided to do everything we can to preserve as many of them as possible."
Retired Energy Specialist Johnny Golden, whose volunteer efforts have been a big part of the quest to save as many live oaks on the Lee Elementary site as possible, is an early proponent of the plan to place presidential nameplates on as many as 30-35 trees on the new school's campus.
"As Dr. Walters said, there are 16 to 18 very special trees on the campus that are being protected," Golden said. "There are 21-23 trees that are actually behind the chain-link fences, and there are maybe 30-35 live oaks on the site that could figure into special educational use by the school.
"There are even some wetlands on the property that will give students an opportunity to see the unique vegetation on that type of no man's land. I think these hands-on opportunities are an amazing feature, and that's why I've been pushing for this from way back."
Site work at the school property is expected to be completed by March 1, after which construction will begin.
"We've got to move on this; it's a tight schedule," Walters said. "There are a lot of things that are dependent on us moving into Lee Elementary in August of 2013."
While the new facility will be the future home of Lee County Elementary, the most crucial part of the school system's plan surrounds the bursting-at-the-seams Lee County Middle School.
"There's always a great deal of excitement around the opening of a new school," Gary Kelley, the system's assistant superintendent for business and finance, said. "But the key to this whole project is the division of the middle school. Adding a second middle school is going to open a lot of possibilities for our students and staff."
Currently, the county's lone middle school is jam-packed with almost 1,600 students. With the completion of the new Lee Elementary School at Lover's Lane Road and Robert B. Lee Drive, the present Lee Elementary building on Firetower Road will become a second middle school. That building has, over the years, been a middle school, a high school and an elementary school.
"It's going to cut back tremendously on the overcrowding," Kelley said. "And think of the extracurricular opportunities it will open for our students."
Walters finishes that thought.
"Where we now have, say, 15 athletes out of 1,600 on our basketball teams, we'll have two teams of 15 from student bodies of 750," the superintendent said. "It's a win-win all around.
"This new school, which should be the last one we'll need in the county for a while, will leave us with two primary schools, two elementary schools, two middle schools, a ninth-grade academy and our high school."
The system's zoning will also change so that students who live in the eastern portion of the county will attend the easternmost schools and students in the western portion of the county will do likewise.
"Right now, zoning is the opposite," Walters said. "That's part of the reason we have such traffic congestion downtown in the mornings and afternoons. The rezoning is going to take a couple of years for everyone to get used to, but it will be for the best. It's going to be better for everyone, and (with the addition of the new school) this is the perfect time to do it."
The new elementary school, in addition to preserving the majestic beauty of the "presidential" live oaks, will be constructed with an emphasis on the latest green technology with an eye on features such as possible walking trails/tracks that may be utilized by members of the community.
"It's going to be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing," Walters said. "A lot of thought went into the planning and design of the entire site. We had arborists out here to help with the preservation of the trees. ... Unlike most such projects, they were part of the design process."
Kelley said $4.4 million of the cost of the school will come from the state based on a formula used for such projects. The remaining $10 million will come from special-purpose local-option sales tax funds approved by Lee voters in March.