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Board clashes over bridge, alternative school

Some School Board observers believed that the retirement of Superintendent Carl Austin would mean quiet, orderly board meetings. That prediction evaporated Tuesday as Chairwoman Janet Herndon and member David Watson argued early and often at the board's regular meeting.

With Austin lounging nonchalantly on the sidelines at his final meeting, the two board members tussled over two issues. The first _ the long-running debate over the Stewart Island bridge _ directly involved Austin.

Austin's ownership of land on the island near Homosassa Elementary School has some, including Herndon, wondering if the district administration has done all it can to protect the school.

School officials have been debating where to put a new entrance to the school, to be paid for by the island's developers David Stewart and Robert Bohnsack, and whether to let the road and bridge to the island become private.

The board was asked Tuesday to approve an agreement that the Homosassa Elementary School's advisory/enhancement council has reached with the developer.

But Herndon still had questions about the safety of the project. She said she has tried to get answers from the administration and board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick, but without success.

She didn't get them Tuesday, either, because Watson challenged whether the questions were relevant.

"They're not irrelevant to me," Herndon responded.

Board member Sheila Whitelaw came to her defense, saying, "Janet had some very valid questions."

Whitelaw said that, with 400 students attending school in Homosassa, the board should have all the details of the project's road construction. But Watson insisted that those details would come out in a traffic study.

"Are you challenging my integrity, Mr. Watson?" Whitelaw asked.

"I'm just saying, do you know which is safer (on the bridge), a light or a gate?" Watson responded.

Clark Stillwell, attorney for the developers, argued that the board has had plenty of chances to debate the case. But Herndon countered that the board did not know about those chances.

Watson asked for a formal vote to declare Herndon's questions irrelevant.

"I think my questions deserve an answer," Herndon responded.

Board members Ruthann Derrico and Mark Stone said they agreed the questions did not relate to the issue before the board. Whitelaw said she still has concerns, but she felt the board had little choice at this point. After apologizing to Herndon, she, too, voted to end discussion.

The board will await the traffic study before making a final decision.

The friction between Herndon and Watson didn't end there.

Several hours later, Watson updated the board on his talks with officials from Rebound, the private company that will operate a program for juvenile offenders at the Citrus County Jail.

Watson has talked to Rebound about developing an alternative school to handle disruptive students. "They felt that it was a definite possibility that we could work something out and it would be affordable," Watson said.

He added that Rebound officials who were at the Tuesday meeting earlier said they were nervous about making a proposal to the board because they had heard recent discussion that the district might set up an alternative school at the old Lakeview School.

Herndon said the privatization of an alternative school through Rebound was just one idea that the board could consider.

Watson erupted. He said if the board was not interested in his updates on talks with Rebound, he would tell the company not to bother with a proposal.

Herndon responded that it sounded like Watson was asking for a formal proposal from Rebound, an issue the board did not vote on.

"I went through every single thing at these meetings," Watson said.

Herndon said others in the district might want to make proposals, but Watson said those people may have no expertise in creating an alternative school.

Whitelaw said she didn't have a problem with Watson discussing the idea with Rebound, but she didn't want Watson to make a commitment from the board. "I hope that when you bring this to us that you don't expect us to just go ahead and agree with it," she said.

"Somewhere there's a disconnect between dreamland and reality. This is reality," a disgusted Watson said.

"I think I've been insulted," countered Herndon. "I'd prefer to stick to the issues and keep the insults out."

Later, as the meeting ended, incoming superintendent James Hughes told the board he planned a workshop on School Board and administration relationships and responsibilities. The presenter, though, is unavailable until August.

"Does she have a hot line?" Watson asked.