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Alternative school approved

After years of debate about location and curriculum, the School Board on Tuesday voted to open an alternative school this fall next to Citrus High School and the school district office.

The board members present unanimously agreed the time had come to create a single-site alternative school for the county's uninterested and disruptive middle and high school students. The program will replace individual alternative classrooms at each middle and high school in the county.

The location of the school, however, generated some dispute.

Residents spoke out against another site being considered at South Boulevard west of the Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

"I don't want it for my front steps," said resident Mike Pitts.

The decision to place the classrooms on an undeveloped district property at Montgomery Avenue and Highland Boulevard also leaves the Lakeview School in limbo.

Lakeview, which closed nearly three years ago when the district opened a new school for the handicapped in Lecanto, has been the front-runner as a location for an alternative school ever since a citizens committee began pushing to save the historic structure.

The committee helped the district get a $250,000 grant that would help renovate Lakeview into both an alternative school and a full service school offering office space to social services.

Although school officials have found they may be able to use that grant money to buy portable classrooms for the alternative school, the board made no decision on that idea Tuesday.

Rounding up the portable classrooms, bringing on staff, including a principal and assistant, and designing a program to be ready by the fall will cost $181,000 more than continuing to run the individual alternative classrooms, officials estimated.

Board member Sheila Whitelaw, the lone vote against the school site, continued to favor the Lakeview site. She said the grant and money set aside to renovate the school will bring the cost to make Lakeview an alternative school in line with the administration's proposal.

Superintendent Pete Kelly said he thought Lakeview was "probably dead" as an alternative school because there was not enough support on the board. But Whitelaw said she wasn't prepared to see Lakeview die.

"I don't remember the death of this project in this board room," she said.

Ansel Briggs, who chaired the citizens committee on Lakeview, also protested the proposed plan. He said the estimates on how much it will cost to renovate Lakeview were too high, and the alternative options committee should have been involved in setting up the most recent proposal.

"When in the devil are you going to take the community seriously that they want to renovate Lakeview?" Briggs said.

Teacher Vincent Treacy encouraged the board to move forward with the temporary alternative plan, but to find a way to use students later to help turn Lakeview into the permanent facility.

Kelly apologized to the alternative options committee for not letting them in on the proposal, even though they had spent years discussing the alternative school issue. The idea of pulling all the portables onto Inverness school property just came up several weeks ago.

"At the time, we had very important time constraints," he said. "We felt that we had a real possibility of bringing about an alternative school this year."

Assistant Superintendent Tom Maher explained that the plan would allow the school district to transport students from across the county using buses already running each day to the Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

Lunch service could be provided by the nearby cafeterias of either the technical institute or Citrus High School.

David Cook, director of student support services, outlined how much it would take to run the school and how much of that total was already available for the existing program.

"The keys to this program are the teachers and the leadership of the school and how they all work together," Cook said.

While the district leadership has debated the merits of a free-standing alternative school for years, teachers, principals and law enforcement officials have long favored creating such an educational setting. Many were in Tuesday's audience.

"My first responsibility to the children I serve is safety and well being," said Crystal River Middle School principal David Hickey. "I think that there is a need . . . I've been in favor of this since 1980."

He said the disruptive students need "a change of scenery" and noted that at his school "I don't really feel I have the curriculum on my campus to meet their needs."

Hickey's thoughts were backed by Crystal River High School principal Craig Marlett. "We have long looked for an option for our students who are not successful," he said. "To me this looks to be a very logical next step."

Marlett said he hopes that the program provides that next step, but that the district builds on that step in the future.

Board member Patience Nave said she has been persuaded to accept the need for such a centralized alternative school. In the existing setting, "We're not really meeting the needs of these kids," she said. "The very first time I came to a School Board meeting, the board was talking about this, and that was 2{ years ago. I think it's time we quit talking."

Inverness Middle School principal Willie Eldridge also agreed that a centralized program was needed, but not just for the students who need to be brought back on track. Removing that element will also help those students who do work in the regular classroom setting by removing those who distract from the educational process.

"We want to give them a better opportunity also," Eldridge said.

Kelly said he will bring additional details about the alternative plan to the board in the coming months.