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Imagine charter school backers walk away mad

DADE CITY — Exasperated over the delays and the resistance from county officials, the backers of Imagine charter school abruptly withdrew their request to build a school off U.S. 41 and Morgan Road in Land O'Lakes.

The school will still open its doors to students this fall from a temporary location on State Road 54, near the Suncoast Parkway, until the backers figure out their next move.

The decision came Thursday evening, after the school's founders sat for nearly six hours at the county's Development Review Committee meeting.

This was their fifth appearance before the county's top staff planners. Their last appearance ignited a two-hour debate and then was postponed until Thursday.

The school's proponents have spent countless hours and resources trying to get this project going. Two meetings of two hours each with Department of Transportation people and county people. Lawyers. Neighbors.

The school, which eventually would have taught more than 700 students, was actually supposed to have been built and running this fall. Because of postponements — many dealing with traffic conditions on U.S. 41, a turn lane, a traffic light and crossing gates at the CSX railroad — the school will run this year at the temporary location.

At the meeting Thursday, attorney Tim Hayes said his clients would pay for crossing guards and for widening the turn lane. The arguments were between the Department of Transportation, which didn't see a need for a traffic light and said the length of the turn lane didn't need to be as long as what the county wanted. County development director Cindy Jolly said the county's standards for safety are more strict than the state's.

Hayes said his clients just wanted to begin building. He asked if the committee could allow school backers to begin the approval process, and said that they would absorb costs if they ended up not being able to get the permits. The clients were willing to risk this to get it built.

"You have a lot of faith," County Administrator John Gallagher said.

If approved, board members said they wanted something written saying they were not at fault if it all went badly. Hayes agreed.

"This thing can and will work," Hayes said. Parents who live near the proposed site talked of the need for the school; especially with the overcrowding issues in Pasco County schools.

But then it unraveled. As all the motions appeared to be voted down, with more debate from the board, Assistant County Administrator Bipin Parikh said he was not in favor of the project and would not support it.

"We're done," one of the owners said and, as a group, they got up and walked out of the meeting. Hayes, still at the podium, said, "We withdraw our application." And he left the room.

Gallagher called for a break before continuing with the agenda.

The owners, growling with fury as they raced down the courthouse steps and out the door, would not comment for this story. Hayes said he will talk with his clients and said he assumes plans might be put in place to make their temporary site permanent.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

Imagine charter school backers walk away mad 08/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 8:10pm]
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