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Culinary arts program's donation plan fails to stir contributors' appetite

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco School Board members had hoped to raise $1 million or more from community and business leaders to help pay for a new culinary arts academy at Land O'Lakes High School.

The $6 million buildings are under construction with a planned August debut. But donations have only trickled in, less than $100,000 in all.

The biggest contributors, officials say, are from the district's own Food and Nutrition Services department and from Durable North America, a firm run by Denis Griesmer, who helped coordinate the new program.

More common have been the rejections. Most recently, Publix Super Markets Charities turned down the district's request for $200,000 that was to go toward kitchen equipment.

"It will be up and running in August," Rob Aguis, district director of career education, said of the academy. "What we may not have is all the equipment we had thought we would have. … I think we're going to get community buy-in, as far as partnerships are concerned. It just isn't investment."

That lack of financial support appears to be keeping other dollars from flowing in.

It certainly played a role in Publix's decision, which came after nearly a year of effort from Pasco school officials.

"There didn't appear to be a lot of support from the community," said Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten. "That is one of the things they look for" at the Publix foundation.

The foundation did donate to the culinary arts academy at Tarpon Springs High School, by contrast, because it had "great community support," Patten said.

"It holds more kids," she said. "And it was less money."

Tarpon High's Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy boasts a wide range of sponsors, from local real estate firms to national restaurant chains. The contributions came as the result of much hard work, assistant principal Emmanuel J. Gombos said.

"It's about building relationships," said Gombos, who explained that the school's financial backing began with alumni and grew from there.

The local education foundation played a key role, using its business connections to bring in supporters, he said. Parents and students also gave time and money to the cause.

"We started this quite a few years ago. The economy has changed," said Gombos, who has given advice to Pasco school officials on this topic. "I'm sure it's not as easy for them, not that it was easy for us."

Yet community backing is critical for the program's success, said Pasco School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley, who was among those insisting that the district seek private partnerships for the culinary arts academy.

"It was always one of our goals to offset some of our costs by having some business partners," Hurley said, expressing disappointment with the poor results so far. "We had always had a vision for our culinary arts program to be responsive to the community."

Former board member Kathryn Starkey said she had hoped the district would bring in at least half the building cost — $3 million — in contributions for the culinary institute, which was not her first choice for a new career academy. Starkey preferred putting the district's scant money into science and technology careers, and acquiesced to the culinary mainly because it could take advantage of federally backed loans that required a shovel-ready project.

The district had only one on line, the culinary academy.

"I would still like to see them go and get that (private) money," Starkey said, suggesting it would allay her concerns over having supported the project in the first place. "They never talked about getting only $100,000."

At least one board member was not surprised that the donations haven't materialized.

Steve Luikart suggested that the district didn't do its homework in planning to build the academy in Land O'Lakes, without easy access for students in other schools, and away from areas where more restaurants and hotels are located.

"I said this in my campaign: 'Don't build it and hope they come,' " Luikart said, calling it "far beyond dreaming" to expect Publix to send $200,000 in support. "I think that's what happened in this situation."

Aguis said he tried.

But he discovered that drumming up donations isn't something that can be done between other responsibilities: "Doing it part time just didn't provide the time you need."

As a result, the district hasn't come close to its outside contribution goals for the culinary arts academy.

Despite all that, the program already has enrolled about 100 students, including 48 incoming freshmen, Land O'Lakes High assistant principal Rick Batchelor said. Of those freshmen, 18 come from outside the school's attendance zone.

"We're trying to make it a soft opening this year," Batchelor said. "We'll build it from there."

By 2012-13, the school hopes to draw 100-125 new freshmen annually to the culinary arts program, which would make it Pasco County's largest career academy within three years.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Culinary arts program's donation plan fails to stir contributors' appetite 06/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 25, 2011 1:19pm]
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