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Bills may reign in spendthrift builder

Lawmakers approved a pair of bills Tuesday to regain control over a company that charged taxpayers nearly $160 for a mop bucket when building a school complex in Ruskin for at-risk students.

House and Senate committees approved similar bills that would tighten oversight of Griff Mills Schools Inc., the company awarded the contract to build and run the Adam Paine Academy.

The company came under scrutiny four months ago after a report issued by the governor's office found stockholders were paid more than $1-million in consulting fees for a facility that has yet to be completed.

Other charges of building code violations, substandard construction practices and inflated land purchase prices soon followed. Money for the $30-million facility came from Public Education Capital Outlay, an education funding program.

"It may be the biggest boondoggle of all time in terms of PECO spending," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. "They spent $159.75 for a mop bucket."

Latvala said he toured the site with Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and found five houses being built for the staff. The largest was a five-bedroom, 3,900-square-foot residence with a sunken garden tub.

"Nobody had any idea personal residences were being built there," Latvala said.

In 1994, when juvenile crime was a hot issue, legislators agreed to fund a school similar to the Glen Mills School in Concordville, Pa., where teenage boys with juvenile records are educated and their behavior changed through peer pressure.

Florida lawmakers created the Alternative Education Institute and authorized the money for the institute to build a 500-bed facility. About $10- million has been spent.

The money comes from a utility tax used to pay for school construction around the state. The facility is designed for students from west central Florida.

When the institute asked for bids on construction and operation of the facility, only one bid was received _ from Griff Mills.

Seven stockholders _ five of them children of the director of Glen Mills _ put up $7,100 to form Griff Mills in January 1995.

Frank Scruggs, the attorney for Griff Mills, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

A 13-member board with members appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president was supposed to oversee the project.

Construction continues even though zoning questions are plaguing the project, and residents in the area are fighting the initial plan that allows for the housing of convicted juvenile offenders.

The new legislation would resolve both issues by making the facility a school for students at risk for dropping out, not a place housing criminals avoiding jail time.

The legislation also would create a smaller, more accountable seven-member board of directors to oversee the educational institute.

If the legislation becomes law, the new board would then decide if it wants Griff Mills to run the facility.

"That would be a stretch," Lee said.