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Superintendent defends proposal

Published Oct. 1, 2005

A school district proposal to consolidate alternative classrooms at a single site in Inverness grew out of talks among top school officials on ways to save money, Superintendent Pete Kelly said this week.

The intention was not, Kelly said, to keep the information from board members or residents, some of whom expressed surprise Wednesday when they learned of the proposal.

Rather, he said, the proposal, which the School Board will be asked to approve in a special meeting Tuesday, came up recently and seemed to answer concerns raised by other alternative school proposals.

The proposal will be heard at a special meeting because Kelly said he wants to be sure that the program could be set up by the next school year.

"It may look like a quickie job, but actually years of work have gone into this," Kelly said.

"One of the biggest problems we were trying to solve about the alternative school was the cost," Kelly said. "We've got seven portables, seven teachers and seven teacher's aides, so we've already got the basics of a school at seven different schools."

Each middle and high school now operates an alternative classroom in a portable on the school's campus. Students are assigned there because they have been disruptive or disinterested in class.

"We wanted a centralized location where all of the buses ran and where a cafeteria was available," Kelly said.

That's when Kelly and his staff thought about vacant property near the school district office in Inverness. Each day, the district buses students across the county to attend the Withlacoochee Technical Institute there.

Kelly said the district has been told the $250,000 state grant the district received for converting Lakeview into an alternative school and full service school can be used to build portables at one of the Inverness locations under consideration.

That makes the plan even more attractive financially, he said.

David Cook, director of student support services, said he got verbal approval from state officials to use the grant money at a different site as long as the district provides both alternative and full-service school programs there.

School officials have narrowed their interest to two parcels. One is behind the District Services Center at Highland Boulevard and Montgomery. That land is used by Citrus High School for agricultural purposes.

The other site is beside the WTI fronting on South Boulevard. That alternative had neighbors in the adjacent subdivision fighting mad.

Mike Pitts, who lives across from that site, said he plans to come to the Tuesday meeting and argue against the WTI site.

He and other neighbors worry about the aesthetics of portables and about the kinds of students attending school there.

"All of these students go to our current schools," Kelly responded. "They are students with problems, not criminals."

Board member Sheila Whitelaw was angry that she had to learn of the plan Wednesday from a Times reporter.

"I sat on this committee for two years and talked about how important it was for the success of the program to have good people running it and adequate training for the staff, and now we're rushing this through," Whitelaw said. "That's contrary to everything the committee talked about."

She said she also worried that the portables would be a permanent solution rather than the temporary one school officials have called it.

"They're going to have to prove to me that it's less expensive," she said. "I want to see the figures."

Ansel Briggs, another member of the committee discussing alternatives, also was concerned about the latest proposal.

While School Board members were told recently that bringing the school's physical condition up to standards would cost as much as $1.7-million, Briggs has long argued that the work should cost less.

Kelly's alternative school plan also concerns Briggs, he said, because he hoped the district would create a much better alternative than the ones operating at the middle and high schools.

Kelly acknowledged that the existing program has not been a total success and that he wants to be sure the teachers and the principal he would appoint there are committed to the program.

Once a temporary site is set, he said, then a central site can be found.

"It's too bad people had to start an uproar about something," he said. "This shouldn't be decided because it's portables. It should be decided based on the needs of our students."