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Board ponders alternative school

Citrus County school leaders may move seven portable classrooms from middle and high school campuses to the Withlacoochee Technical Institute grounds to create an alternative education school for disruptive students, officials said Wednesday.

Officials also are considering a site behind the District Services Center beside Citrus High School. That area, bounded by Highland Boulevard and Montgomery Avenue, is used for various agriculture purposes.

The staff working at the various programs would be consolidated, and several staff members would be added.

Superintendent Pete Kelly, student services director David Cook, several board members and other administrators are just beginning to discuss their options.

However, the administration will ask the School Board to approve the plan at a special meeting Tuesday morning. The proposal is so new, in fact, that board members won't receive detailed information until Friday.

Sheila Whitelaw, an alternative school proponent and a member of the district's alternative options committee for several years, said Wednesday that she first learned of the proposal from a Times reporter. The administration, however, has told other board members about the idea.

Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel said she knew some details. She said the Inverness sites were proposed because it would be cheaper to transport students to the alternative education school on the same buses that carry students from around the county to WTI.

Chairman Mark Stone said he was aware of the discussions and he expected to hear more details at Tuesday's meeting.

Board members Patience Nave and Carl Hansen could not be reached for comment.

The undeveloped parcel, which is studded with pine trees, is behind the Withlacoochee Technical Institute fronting on South Boulevard. The proposal to put portable classrooms on it surprised neighbors.

Mike Pitts, who learned of the plan from school officials late Tuesday, was immediately angry.

"I'm not too happy about it," Pitts said Wednesday. "I've been here for 24 years. Why are they thinking about putting this in a residential area?"

Pitts said he was worried about the district putting its "worst, disruptive kids" into his neighborhood.

"I'm sure the principals were 100 percent behind this. They're going to be happy to get rid of these kids," he said.

"I'm going to be there (at the meeting). This is not just a question of affecting those nearby homes where it's fronting on their property. It's going to affect the whole neighborhood."

Others in the neighborhood agreed.

"I don't think I want these kinds of children here," said Debbie Chandler, who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years. "We absolutely do not want this to go there. How does the school system just not take into consideration the neighbors there?"

Cook said a central site would help students.

"This way we can do a better program for these students," Cook said. "We want to do it as inexpensively as possible."

Cook said those same students already are on school campuses and have not caused major problems.

"All we're talking about is putting them on a centralized campus, not attracting any different kids," Cook said. "And these are not bad kids. They're kids that we're trying to help to become productive people."

For years, principals and teachers have sought a central location where disruptive and uninterested students could be sent to learn without interrupting the lessons of others.

But the School Board has not been able to decide how to fulfill that need. The abandoned Lakeview School site long has been discussed as the primary choice for such a program, but that proposal has stalled.

Renovating the old school would cost $1.7-million, according to a recent estimate. Even with a $250,000 state grant available, the overall cost worries officials who already are grappling with a tight budget.

Questions also have been raised about the size of the site and the cost of busing students from around the district to the Hernando area.

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