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Schools chief is mired in dispute

Published Oct. 13, 2005

School Superintendent Carl Austin's purchase of some property on an island behind Homosassa Elementary School has drawn him into a controversy involving a developer's plan to build a bridge to the undeveloped island. The Citrus County schools superintendent bought the property for $20,000 in 1987, when a dispute was flaring over proposed development on the island in the Homosassa River. Austin said Wednesday he thought the land might make a good site for a home.

"I just find it incredible that the superintendent of Citrus County schools, knowing our concerns about the development of this island and him certainly not being a stupid person, buys land that is wetlands for $20,000," said Kevin Jenkins, who opposes the bridge.

Until Tuesday, when the County Commission approved plans for the bridge to settle a lawsuit, the opponents didn't know that Austin owned property on the island.

One of their concerns is that the bridge will bring more traffic to Willard Avenue, which runs alongside the elementary school. They are disappointed the School Board wasn't a stronger ally in their battle against the bridge and suspect that Austin's property may be the reason.

Austin said he doesn't see a conflict of interest because the bridge issue never came before the School Board. Two residents approached him on the issue but never took it to the board, he said.

The two, including the Rev. John Denmark, discussed asking the School Board to join a petition to vacate the street, effectively closing it to traffic.

"He didn't see any problem at all with us going to the School Board," Denmark said. "He had not expressed an opinion on it, but he heard our concerns."

Denmark said he never went to the board because of an illness.

Austin said there is no evidence that the bridge would pose a student safety problem.