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Pact with tennis program approved

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The partnership between Saddlebrook International Tennis Inc. and the Pasco County School District has been, by all accounts, a success.

So much so that Saddlebrook is spending about $500,000 to build a permanent school facility for next school year, which begins in late August. The partnership provides a public school for youths enrolled in Saddlebrook's prestigious tennis program.

The School Board on Tuesday approved a two-year contract with Saddlebrook to continue providing a school, including teachers, computers and a new administrator. The school will be for high school students, but middle school courses will be added if 25 or more youngsters sign up for that level.

Board member Pam Coulter wanted a one-year contract and voted against the two-year proposal. Saddlebrook officials asked for a two-year agreement because of the commitment they are making by building a permanent facility.

The school was opposed by some last year _ and became an issue in the School Board and superintendent elections _ because it was seen as using public funds and district resources to provide an elite school for children from wealthy families. The emphasis on tennis also upset some opponents, as did the 1:15 teacher-to-student ratio, lower than regular Pasco classrooms.

However, district officials and Saddlebrook representatives persuaded the board last year to approve the program. They said it would be self-supporting and would not cost Pasco taxpayers additional money.

For every student enrolled in Pasco schools, the district receives state funds so technically, the program actually brought money to the county. In addition, each student in the Saddlebrook school pays $2,800 annually, which pays for things like computers.

Moreover, the district legally must educate all children who live in Pasco. And, district officials argued, the arrangement provided exactly the sort of partnership the state Department of Education wants school districts to forge with businesses.

Some of those points were raised again Tuesday, including Coulter's concerns that most of the children who attend the school are not permanent Pasco residents. Tom Dempsey, Saddlebrook Tennis International president, said that one-third of the youngsters are permanent residents.

The other two-thirds live at Saddlebrook specifically for the tennis program but maintain permanent residences elsewhere.

Youngsters in the tennis program still have the option to attend Quail Hollow Elementary School for fifth grade (the beginning age group for the Saddlebrook tennis program), Weightman Middle School or Zephyrhills High School. A private school also was available at Saddlebrook, although it was operated by an individual rather than by the resort.

The partnership allows youngsters to attend school from 7:30 a.m. until noon and then leave for practice.

Dempsey said Tuesday that the children enrolled are gifted tennis players who aspire to be "world class" or go on to college tennis teams. Some have gone on to attend Princeton University, the College of William and Mary, the University of Iowa and Indiana University, he said.

Last school year, 57 youngsters attended the public school at Saddlebrook. The board on Tuesday also was provided two budgets for the school, based on different enrollments.

Both budgets include an administrator, who will be paid $50,000 and will work only at the Saddlebrook school. One budget, for a total of $255,456, is for a school with four teachers for 45 to 59 students. The other totals $506,548 and includes seven teachers for 91 to 105 students.

According to district officials, the school has been, and will continue to be, self supporting.

The partnership also has led to clinics for school system tennis coaches sponsored by Saddlebrook Tennis International.

"When we sat here last year and voted on it, I thought it was somewhat of a risk," board member Jean Larkin told Saddlebrook representatives, "but you really have given back so generously."

In other business, the board voted unanimously to fire a custodian at Deer Park Elementary School who was accused of sexually harassing female employees there and of jeopardizing the safety of others on the school grounds.

Frank Kalinowski, the director of personnel, told the board that William Wardlaw gave female employees nicknames such as "Squirrel" and "Wiggles." Wardlaw also allegedly gave the women "unwanted stares."

On three separate occasions in March, women complained about his behavior. Wardlaw was told by his superiors to stop such behavior, but his comments did not cease.

On May 11, at 10:30 a.m., Wardlaw drove his motorcycle through the middle of the school campus and past the cafeteria and five occupied classrooms, Kalinowski said, mentioning both the noise of the motorcycle and the hazard of driving it through the grounds.

"We think Mr. Wardlaw's behavior has put in jeopardy the safety of individuals at the school," Kalinowski said.

Wardlaw spoke in his own defense, telling the board that he meant no malice in giving co-workers nicknames and though some women thought he was staring at them he might not have been.

"As to the motorcycle," he said, "it makes far less noise than the lawn mower, for instance."

Board members were not swayed, saying that they have all the documentation they need to fire Wardlaw.