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Speaker tours crowded school

Florida House Speaker Daniel Webster got a look at Ocoee Middle School's peeling walls, a whiff of its smelly classrooms and concluded Friday what many parents have thought for years:

The school should be razed.

Frustrated parents had implored Webster to visit Orange County's most crowded school, which sits in his hometown, after a visit there by Gov. Lawton Chiles in September.

At the time of Chiles' visit, the speaker had gained a reputation as a skeptic about the dilapidated and crowded condition of Florida schools _ the focus of a special legislative session next week in Tallahassee.

On Friday, Webster showed he had become more of a believer about the dire problems at some schools, particularly Ocoee Middle.

In fact, Webster said, he would be willing to help lobby to build a new school at Ocoee, though the final decision belongs to the school system.

"We have some old buildings that people have hung on to, but they've seen their life," Webster said of the school, which has buildings dating back to 1927. "They've got to go. I think it is more dysfunctional than crowded."

Ocoee has more than 1,200 students on a campus that is supposed to have only 550. Almost two months ago, Chiles used Ocoee Middle as one of his poster schools for Florida's crowding woes. After his visit, he said, "If I were a parent here, I'd be mad as hell."

Chiles didn't refer to Webster during his visit, but Ocoee parent leaders and many others saw the governor's tour as an attempt to put pressure on the House speaker.

That's why parents invited Webster to the school, said Jim Gleason, vice president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Ocoee.

"As a parent, you're sensitive in not wanting the kids or school getting caught in a political tug of war," Gleason said. "We wanted the speaker to see it firsthand. Whether they agree on a solution to the problem, at least they're talking apples to apples."

Gleason and a handful of other parents accompanied Webster on the tour, led by assistant principal Evelyn Chandler.

Chandler highlighted some of the same unsightly areas and problems that Chiles viewed, including the dozen portables housing the school's seventh grade. She pointed to some of the school's eight bathrooms, some in portables that are a 10-minute walk for many students.

The school's oldest building _ the 1927 structure that houses the sixth grade _ was a main stop. A pungent smell of mold and mildew permeates the building.

At Chandler's urging, Webster peered at paint falling off ceilings and at termite holes on chalkboards. The pests damaged Chandler's old office across the hall, too.

"We had to evacuate because of our fine friends," she said.

The school would get $15-million in repairs and renovations if Orange County voters approve a sales tax proposal next week, but Chandler and parents said repairs only will keep an inadequate building around. They want something new.

Webster made no guarantees on what the upcoming session would do for Ocoee. He described the proposals he has been touting for months, including creating a fund that rewards school districts for constructing well-built schools at frugal prices.

"Had Orange County been doing that all along, there would have been a lot more money to go further," Webster said.

He referred to the school district's elementary schools that cost nearly $13-million each. Now, with the help of a volunteer group of construction experts, the school district is building its next batch of similar schools for less money.

Webster said some schools like Ocoee Middle suffer when other schools in the same district get large amounts of money to build "Taj Mahals."

He said there needs to be measures to make sure the schools spend funds responsibly.

"You can't say here's some dollars and have them build signature schools," he said. "We're going to get some bang for our buck."

But he wants to get the state money out to schools as soon as possible after the special session.

"We're not supporting any plan that doesn't provide immediate assistance," Webster said.

_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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