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Pasco board considers priorities as school maintenance projects go unfunded

BAYONET POINT — On any given day, any one of the air conditioning units at Bayonet Point Middle School is likely to go on the fritz.

They're mostly original from the school's 1975 debut, and they've been subject to the Band-aid treatment as they break down and students swelter.

Principal Mike Asbell had hoped to have the system replaced this year. It appeared on the Pasco County school district's 225-item, $18 million wish list for capital maintenance projects.

But by the time the list got whittled down to fit budget realities, only 36 projects valued at $3 million remained. That's an average of $3,500 per building, with not every building getting a share. (By comparison, the district budgeted $5.9 million for the same purpose just two years ago.)

Bayonet Point's air conditioning replacement stood among the dozens of requests denied for lack of funding.

Throughout the district, roof-covered walkways were completely eliminated, along with restroom plumbing projects, flooring replacements and playground equipment.

"Everything (dealing with) life, safety, health and emergencies are absolutely taken care of," maintenance director Gerry Brown said.

But capital maintenance projects — think of these as the big ticket items and not their daily care — continue to suffer as the district puts its limited available resources into new school construction instead.

"Is it more cost effective to do preventive maintenance than to react to things that are broken?" Brown said. "It's like changing the oil in a car. It's $26 to change the oil, $2,600 to replace the engine. It's the same with buildings."

If the district had $6 million to tackle these needs, he said, it would be making progress. At $3 million, "we're basically taking care of the critical items and hoping we don't get the emergency," Brown said.

So Lacoochee Elementary will continue to go without a playground. It's fiscally understandable, principal Karen Marler said, but it doesn't make the outcome any easier for children.

Some School Board members are dissatisfied with the administration's priorities.

During a workshop this week, they told superintendent Heather Fiorentino to set new priorities within the district's $65.3 million capital projects budget. They made clear their desire to move money out of a proposed new administration building and into more pressing needs, such as these unfunded maintenance projects and also school technology improvements.

"With the budget constraints we face, it's a more appropriate use of dollars to maintain the facilities that we have before we build additional facilities," board vice chairman Allen Altman said.

He observed that technology and maintenance projects align with the district's long-range strategic vision, and insisted that the budget should closely follow that vision.

"We have set some good priorities," agreed board member Kathryn Starkey.

She figured the district could free up millions by not spending so much on the administration building, while also saving money on the demolition of Sanders Elementary School and convincing the private sector to support a portion of a new culinary arts academy at Land O'Lakes High School.

Fiorentino lobbied for the administration building, and has set aside about $10 million for it. But she also acknowledged that the board had made its wishes clear, and said she would meet with her staff to create a new list.

Brown said the changes that emerge might give the schools a little breathing room.

"With this new direction, we're going to be able to catch a few more things before they break," he said.

The board hopes to have the revised recommendations by early December.

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

Pasco board considers priorities as school maintenance projects go unfunded 10/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 29, 2009 9:12pm]
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