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Alternative school plan still stuck

A proposal to build an alternative high school for 500 troubled teenagers, which sparked community protest last year in High Point, will resurface Tuesday when the Pinellas School Board meets.

Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice will ask the board to speed up construction of the school, which the board approved in concept in January 1997. They did not choose a site, however, after High Point residents objected to building it next to High Point Elementary on 150th Avenue N near Largo.

School Board members say they still have questions about the need for the school and who it will serve. And while next year's budget is not final, school officials say there is no money.

Yet to continue the delay means "a whole lot of kids could succeed in a smaller setting, but it's not there. And therefore they're just leaving," said Nancy Zambito, director of school operations for Area I schools.

Zambito also is a member of the Juvenile Justice Board of Pinellas and Pasco, of which Rice is chairman, that worked with school Superintendent Howard Hinesley to develop the original proposal. That group has pledged $15-million of the funds it will receive from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax to help pay for the school, but the money will not be available until 2003, Zambito said.

Rice sent a letter to the School Board last month urging them to build the school now and get reimbursement from the tax later.

Zambito said the board is considering a new site on county-owned land near the Juvenile Detention Center at 5255 140th Ave. N in Clearwater.

The proposal approved by the School Board last year says that the school would serve up to 500 teens, including youths who are returning from juvenile justice programs, on the verge of expulsion, poor performers in traditional high schools and those with many suspensions.

More specific plans will not be developed until there are firm plans to build it, Zambito said.

Yet several School Board members want to hear more before building.

"We're a long way from saying build such-and-such because we don't know such-and-such is needed. There is no data for building a school that big. And that's a lot of that kind of kid to put in one building," board member Susan Latvala said.

Next year's budget has no money to build or run the alternative high school, said Barry Lupiani, budget director for Pinellas schools.

Still, Zambito said she hopes the board will consider moving quickly in order to save students who may drop out and end up in jail.

The school will not be a dumping ground for bad youths, she said. Critics who assailed the proposal last year were scared of the unknown.

"We're not talking about all terrible discipline problem kids. You can have a number of different groups in one school. I think the real dumping ground is when you take a kid who is not going to be successful in a big school and you dump him in a big school and say, "Go for it!' "

The School Board will meet at 5 p.m. Tuesdayat the district administrative headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo.