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Officials: Schools will fare well

Citrus school officials who visited Tallahassee this week for the special legislative session walked away with mixed messages on how the state was going to relieve crowding.

But they did come away thinking that Citrus County schools were going to fare well regardless of what bill is passed.

Superintendent Pete Kelly said Thursday he was confident the district will be able to move forward immediately with plans for a new school.

The elementary school, which likely will be built between Pine Ridge and Citrus Hills, could be ready in three years. By then, Kelly's staff estimates, it would open with more than 600 kids.

While most of the session focused on finding billions of dollars to build new schools, that was not Citrus officials' primary concern.

What made them drive to the capital this week was discussion about changing the way the state counts school space. The state changed the formula last spring to include special classrooms such as those used for art and music. If those classrooms were not filled, it made schools look less crowded.

Even though one of the county's elementary schools is packed and others are filling up rapidly, the new formula said Citrus needed no new classrooms.

If that formula changes, and Citrus officials think it will, that will mean theycan begin planning a new elementary school.

None of the Citrus officials who visited the capital said they wanted money the Legislature allocated for new schools.

Kelly said a new school would be paid for by shuffling other construction priorities on the district's five-year building plan.

"I think we're going to be okay here," School Board Chairman Mark Stone said. "Of course, we weren't in too bad of shape here to start with."

Stone described the session as a tug-of-war between the school districts that need millions of dollars to build schools "and the rest of us who were trying to make sure that we don't lose money."

Board member Sheila Whitelaw said that she thought because of all the compromises, the school district would not get as much as she hoped for, but that everything seemed relative.

"The original bill was really bad in the beginning, so any improvements will be a good thing," she said.

Board member Carl Hansen said the visit left him frustrated.

Hansen, who opposes bonding to build schools because it is expensive in the long run, was upset by a plan that would borrow against lottery money.

He said school buildings were necessities, not the enhancements that the lottery was supposed to provide.

Bonding also reduces the pool of money available for all school districts over the long run because so much has to be paid in interest.

"You know who's going to have to pay for this _ my grandchildren. I'll be dead and gone by the time they pay this off," Hansen said.

Board member Patience Nave said the visit helped her appreciate Citrus County's position.

"We were keenly aware that we are extraordinary to be where we are," Nave said. "We're in so much better a condition than most of the districts in the state, and we should count our blessings rather than belaboring our problems."

Both Nave and Kelly noted that officials in Tallahassee seemed stunned at the district's low level of debt. While many districts have tens of millions of dollars in bond debts, Citrus has only about $1-million.

"I kept beating home the message, please don't punish us for doing what's right," Nave said.

The officials who made the trip said they know they accomplished what they set out to do.

"Yes, it was worthwhile," Kelly said. "I don't think we changed anybody's mind but were able to talk to some people and let them know where Citrus County was."

Those discussions may lead to more local involvement in lobbying lawmakers next year, which Kelly says might be crucial since other changes in school district operations are on the horizon.

"We're probably going to need to be very vigilant," he said. "It's going to be an interesting session in the spring."