SPRING HILL — For years, Springstead High School's juniors and seniors have looked beyond Hernando County's borders to find a posh location for their spring prom.
Students have climbed into limousines and headed south to the Florida Aquarium and Busch Gardens in Tampa and Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor, among other places. The venues offer both a wow factor and space to accommodate more than 400 promgoers and two dozen chaperones.
The tradition is about to end, and students aren't happy about it.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt reminded the county's five high school principals this school year about a directive he made last year: All proms must be held in the county.
His primary motivator, he said, is safety. Keeping students within the county borders reduces travel, and that in turn lowers the chance of tragic accidents, Blavatt said.
"I've spent too many years making too many phone calls to parents after graduations, proms and homecomings where there have been disastrous situations," Blavatt said. "I want to cut the odds."
The directive prompted an appeal from Springstead junior and seniors. The mandate, students told Blavatt during a meeting last month, will force them to cut the size of their prom because there isn't a venue large enough in Hernando to accommodate the event.
Capping the number of tickets means some students will be shut out, said Anthony Zeng, the senior class president and one of the students who met with Blavatt. Zeng presented Blavatt with statistics that show people are more likely to be injured in accidents closer to home.
Blavatt stood firm. Springstead doesn't have to do a combined junior and senior prom, and holding the event in Hernando supports local businesses, he told students.
"I empathize with them. I understand their concerns," Blavatt said. "I have to do what I think is right."
With about 1,860 students, Springstead is Hernando's largest high school by about 400 students. Dividing the prom into one event for juniors and another for seniors is not considered an option, Zeng said.
"We want to be together," he said.
Springstead had its prom last year at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center in Tampa. About 430 students attended, with plenty of room in the center's 9,900-square-foot hall, Zeng said.
Afterward, the school made initial plans to return to the Bayanihan this school year, setting the date for March 17, said Springstead principal Susan Duval.
Duval acknowledged that Blavatt's reminder this year was the first she remembers hearing about the new rule. She said she wholeheartedly supports the school's tradition of mixing up its prom venues to make the event special.
As for traffic accidents, the track record is good, Duval said.
"We've not had issues," she said. "Our kids have been responsible."
Springstead's prom has traditionally included a dinner followed by a dance, so the venue has to be large enough to accommodate sit-down dining and a sizable dance floor.
The largest suitable hall in the county is the Palace Grand in Spring Hill, where Springstead is planning to hold its prom next spring. The main ballroom, set up for dinner and a 90-square-foot dance floor, can accommodate 400 comfortably, co-owner Nick Sessa said. The Palace Grand will charge about $35 per student, he said.
"We keep it very reasonable because we also want to keep them in the county," said Sessa, whose daughter attends Nature Coast Technical High School.
That school is having its prom at Southern Hills Plantation Club in Brooksville this school year because the Palace Grand wasn't available.
The smaller space at the Palace Grand means Springstead must devise a system to dole out a supply of tickets that will exceed the demand. At this point, students are considering a system that would give seniors the opportunity to buy tickets first, Zeng said.
The event is now slated for May 12. Tickets are set at $75.
Since the Bayanihan Center provided some decorations, such as tablecloths and a built-in lighting system, holding the event at the Palace Grand will actually cost more when factoring in the expense for decorations, Zeng said.
Making a profit is not the goal, Duval said, but any leftover money is kept by the junior class for graduation expenses.
Springstead students acknowledged that the issue comes down to more than numbers. Holding a prom beyond the county's borders lends a sense of novelty and adventure to one of their most memorable high school events.
"You'll never forget taking that little trip down there," junior class president Will Allen said. "It's not just something in Spring Hill that you see every day."
As a Springstead senior, Tori Selby supports the school's right to choose its venue. As the student representative on the School Board, she said she understands Blavatt's concerns about safety, but said the statistics on traffic crashes should be considered.
If the issue were to come to a School Board vote, she offered to do some legwork.
"I would talk to the student delegates and get opinions," Selby said.
The goal is not to get special treatment for one school, Zeng said.
"We want everyone in Hernando to have that opportunity," he said.
Four of the county's five high schools have held proms outside the county. The fifth, Weeki Wachee, opened last year with freshmen and sophomores and plans to hold its first junior prom at the Palace Grand this year, said principal Dennis McGeehan.
Central High had its prom at Innisbrook for several years to accommodate the number of guests, said McGeehan, who led that school for 14 years. Now that Central's student body is smaller, the school can keep prom in the county, principal Joe Clifford said.
The school had its prom at the Palace Grand last year and will return this school year.
"We keep the money in the community, parents are less stressed about how far (students) have to drive, and we think it's the right thing to do," Clifford said.
To minimize drive time and expenses, Hernando High principal Ken Pritz directed students to keep their prom in the county after he arrived at the school a few years ago.
"Not all of them are in limousines," he said. "And not all students can afford to put out the money it costs to go to prom, so we're trying to keep the costs down."
Reach Tony Marrero at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected] Find him on Facebook by searching for Hernando Education Beat — Tampa Bay Times.