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Denham Oaks' big day // TEXTBOOK IN MANY WAYS

The wait is almost over.

Tuesday morning, Denham Oaks Elementary School finally opens its doors to students.

Janet Pons, a Denham Oaks teacher who for two months shared a classroom with Lake Myrtle Elementary teacher Laurie Howard, was ready for her own room last week.

It's not that she and Howard haven't gotten along. They've worked together well.

But it was tough doing double sessions, holding school in shifts. Sixty kids sharing supply space for 30. Pons, the temporary guest in Howard's room, had a child's table and chair for her desk, milk crates for her pupils' pencils.

Denham Oaks classes began at 12:30 p.m. Some children spent five hours in day care before class.

"By the time they got here, they were wiped out," Pons said.

And it wasn't easy on Pons the wife and mother, either. She usually didn't get home until 6 p.m. at the earliest, and didn't feel much like doing anything.

"We've been eating out a lot," she said.

That should change now. The school's just about finished, though it is late.

Last week, workers began laying sod. Painters worked furiously on the final touches. Parents and school staffers teamed up to assemble furniture.

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How does a school get built in Pasco County? In most ways, Denham Oaks is a textbook example. In one important way, it's an exception.

First, the school district must determine a need for the school.

A 1992 study determined that, based on continued growth in central Pasco, Land O'Lakes needed a new school to ease crowding at Lake Myrtle and Sanders Memorial elementary schools.

Next, the district needed enough cash to build the school. It would cost $10.5-million _ land and everything _ to build what at the time was known merely as Central Elementary School No. 3.

Then the district hired an architect. In 1993, 34 firms submitted bids to work as architects on the school. A special committee short-listed six firms. In June 1993, the district hired Rowe Architects in Tampa. The actual architect, Rick Rados, also had designed Lake Myrtle.

It takes 8 to 10 months to design a school. Drawings are done in three phases.

Phase I drawings are conceptual drawings, a thumbnail sketch of the basic facilities and arrangement of buildings. Teachers, support services workers and cafeteria workers all offer ideas at this point.

Mike Rapp, director of planning and construction for the school district, describes Phase II drawings as a hybrid between a sketch and the final drawings.

"It's moving toward a highly detailed blueprint, with the utilities and drainage, electric, fire and health and safety schematics," he said.

Phase III drawings are the actual building contract drawings, on which contractors will base their bids. All plans must meet school district and state Department of Education approval.

Meanwhile, the district sought 20 acres in south central Pasco on which to build the school.

Developer Mike Orsi sold the district a piece of land just south of Carpenter's Run, east of Turtle Lakes, bordered on the south and east by Orsi's planned Oak Grove development. The new school would be the hub for three neighborhoods.

After the school design won final approval from DOE, public notices ran in local newspapers for construction bids. The ads ran three weeks in a row, seven days apart. A week after the ads ended, the district held a pre-bid conference.

At the conference, potential bidders picked up plans and documents about the project so they could make informed bids. Bids were expected within three weeks.

In July 1994, the district hired Norwood Construction Co. to build the school.

In November, the School Board picked a name for the school: Denham Oaks Elementary. The name reflected local history _ a community called Denham had existed near U.S. 41 and State Road 54 decades ago _ and the subdivision that would be built around it.

In January, the district started redrawing school boundaries in anticipation of an Aug. 28 opening.

The district needs a variety of permits before a school can be built and before it can open. Approval must be obtained from Southwest Florida Water Management District, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Transportation.

Arrangements must be made for power, cable and telephone service.

And, of course, for water and sewer service.

That's where the textbook construction process for Denham Oaks veered off track.

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It wasn't a matter of competition.

Not at all.

The way Larry DeLucenay sees it, it was a matter of health and safety. A matter of concern for the welfare of children.

But DeLucenay acknowledges that none of this would have happened if competition hadn't been an issue.

By now, you probably know the story.

In 1988, Pasco County Utilities was cleared to provide water and sewer service to the property that now is home to Denham Oaks.

In May 1994, however, then-County Attorney Tom Bustin filed a letter in which he recognized DeLucenay's Mad Hatter Utility as the rightful service provider in the area.

The Public Service Commission had granted Mad Hatter a certificate, Bustin said, so "Mad Hatter has what may be termed a franchise and (Pasco County Utilities) will not compete with the corporation in that area as long as Mad Hatter is fully able to provide the service for which it was granted a certificate."

So when the district moved forward with plans to build the school, it appeared Mad Hatter would serve the school.

But the mood, and the county attorney, had changed in April 1995.

The new attorney, Karla Stetter, wrote that "the county is not restricted to serve in particular certificated areas pursuant to PSC regulations."

The PSC could not "preclude an exempt governmental agency from providing water and sewer service notwithstanding prior certification" of the area, she wrote.

Construction already had begun on the school. Orsi, the developer, had promised water and sewer to Denham Oaks by June 15. He and DeLucenay had wrangled for about a year without reaching a service agreement.

Stetter's letter cleared the way for Orsi to ask Pasco County to provide service instead of Mad Hatter.

An April 28 memorandum from the district's Rapp to Joe McClain, school district attorney, makes it clear that school officials knew about a potential problem and the likely consequences.

"I have reason to believe that Mad Hatter Utility, Inc., may soon initiate legal action against the Pasco County Government," Rapp wrote. "At issue appears to be who has jurisdiction for providing utility service to the Oak Grove subdivision (Mike Orsi's development) and to Denham Oaks Elementary."

The memo closed with this prophetic passage:

"On Thursday, April 27, 1995, Mr. Larry DeLucenay, president of Mad Hatter Utility, Inc., called me. The main thrust of his questions to me centered on what would happen with Denham Oaks Elementary if he initiated legal action. . . . My response was the school could not open if utilities were not in place."

That's just what happened. But school officials didn't tell parents about the situation until July.

"We had been hoping that we could all get together as reasonable people and reach a solution without going into double sessions," Weightman said. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen."

DeLucenay filed complaints with the DEP about Orsi's rush to lay water and sewer pipes without a permit. That stopped construction. Forced double sessions at Lake Myrtle Elementary. Threw families' schedules into disarray.

"They installed those pipes without proper permits," DeLucenay said. "No one inspected those pipes before I brought it up. It just concerned me that if one day Mad Hatter ever ended up hooked to those lines, we would want to know they had been safely installed and disinfected."

Orsi and DEP still are working out the terms of his fine for installing pipes without a permit.

Orsi has accused DeLucenay of ambushing schoolchildren with his "last-minute" attack to keep the school from opening. He seemed suspicious when, last month, DeLucenay finally agreed to drop his complaints, which allowed construction to resume and resulted in the county providing water and sewer as Orsi had requested.

DeLucenay will continue his competition suit against the county in federal court.

"What I did was not politically favorable," DeLucenay said, "but I think I personally owed it to the community to point out something as negligent as putting in lines to a school without permits or inspections.

"If it had been down the road 2 miles, probably no one would have ever been the wiser."

But Rapp noted that if the school had been built in a different place, Mad Hatter never would have been involved and none of this would have happened.

No question over territorial rights.

No turf war.

No last-minute protests.

Everything would have gone smoothly, he said, with no need to rush the pipes into the ground.

Textbook stuff.

"I'm just glad it's finally over and we can put it behind us," Rapp said.

Stocking the school

Here's just a sample of the what you'll find at Denham Oaks Elementary School:

Students 585

Teachers 52

Administrators 2

Support personnel 28

Stacking chairs 1,775

Student desk tables 404

30-by-60 rectangular tables 142

36-inch round tables 100

8{-inch playground balls 60

Macintosh computers 80

Laser disc players 6

Televisions 57

Computerized overhead projectors 9

Footballs 30

Basketballs 10

U.S. floor maps 6

Jumbo world atlases 12

Upright piano 1

Chromatic bell sets 35

Soprano recorders 120

Thesauruses 50

Electric kiln 1

Source: Pasco County School District

Central Pasco's new school

On Tuesday, the $10.5-million Denham Oaks Elementary School finally opens to students. The construction process started in 1993 with the hiring of Rowe Associates, a Tampa architectural firm, to design the school. It continued with the search for and purchase of a piece of land. The School Board wound up buying a parcel that would be between Carpenter's Run, Turtle Lakes and the future Oak Grove subdivision. Last summer, the board hired Norwood Industrial Construction to build the school. This spring, Norwood began construction. Everything seemed on track until Mad Hatter Utilities owner Larry DeLucenay filed a complaint with the state Department of Environmental Protection citing health concerns about the pipes that would supply drinking water to the school. His complaint came after Oak Grove developer Mike Orsi asked Pasco County to provide water and sewer service to the school rather than DeLucenay. After two months of wrangling, DeLucenay dropped his complaints and construction resumed. Denham Oaks is expected to have 585 pupils on opening day. It has capacity for about 780.

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