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Boarding school marches forward

The third time was the charm for Bill White.

Though White's proposal for a military-style boarding school was rejected in Hernando and Lake counties, the controversial project finally got past the first step Monday night in Zephyrhills.

After three hours of discussion, the Zephyrhills City Council voted 3-2 to accept an ordinance to rezone The Academy's intended site, 80 acres off Green Slope Drive. The decision prompted a chorus of boos from a crowd of residents opposed to the project.

White, an Orlando musician, said he intends to build a $12-million school that will house and educate about 400 abused and neglected boys ages 13 to 18.

Virtually all the residents attending Monday's meeting were opposed to the rezoning, with more than 35 speaking against the ordinance and just three residents speaking for it. Those that spoke in favor were insulted and booed.

Most opposition speakers told the council they were concerned that youths who run away from the school might assault residents and cause trouble.

Barbara Joiner said she feared the possibility of a runaway teenager "able to go through (her) window like a wolf among sheep."

Some comments made by an official of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) brought rumblings.

Susan Lerman, program director for children and family services for HRS in Pasco and Pinellas counties, said the students would have to interact with the community.

"These children would not live within the grounds of the program 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said. "These kids would need to be part of the community to some degree. If you did not (let them), it would be a prison."

After numerous residents spoke against the ordinance, council member Clyde C. Bracknell moved that the issue be made a referendum. But the motion was rejected 3-2.

White, who was silent throughout the meeting, refused to comment Monday night on the decision. He suggested that a Times reporter leave a message for him Tuesday at home, but he did not return several messages left there.

He had pitched the same project for the Spring Lake community in Hernando County in August 1991 but was denied by county commissioners troubled by the size of the project and inconsistencies in White's resume.

The St. Petersburg Times had found then that several claims White made about his past could not be confirmed by the organizations he allegedly was affiliated with. Among them:

That he had been a Nevada schoolteacher.

That he has a master's degree in education from Stanford University.

That he played football for the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League.

None of those organizations had any record of an affiliation with White.

White, 48, also has said most of the academy's students would be referred by HRS, but Lerman told the council Monday that would be impossible.

"We wouldn't support all 400 of these kids," she said. "We can't afford it. . . . We would supply only a small fraction."

Tuesday's crowd moaned loudly when Lerman said that there cannot be a fence around the proposed school, and though the teenagers it would serve would not be those adjudicated delinquent or with criminal records, they would be difficult.

"These are not going to be angelic children," she said. "We don't place easy kids in institutions. . . . These are kids that for the most part haven't made it (in society)."

White still has several steps to accomplish before his school can be built, including securing financing, obtaining state certification and receiving a building permit from the city.

This project was also turned down two years earlier by the city of Howey-in-the-Hills in Lake County.

In other action Monday, the council voted 3-2 to dissolve the Zephyrhills Airport Authority.

Several actions taken by the authority in its one-year existence, including the firing of Airport Manager Bob Collins, had prompted City Manager Nick Nichols to suggest the council dissolve the group in September. The council voted 3-2 to keep the authority intact at that time.