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Reform school's fate still up in the air

Once touted as a cutting-edge program for preventing juvenile crime, the $30-million Adam Paine Academy today sits half-finished near Sun City Center, a white elephant mired in controversy and uncertainty.

Now, state leaders are talking about scrapping the project altogether. Senators voted Wednesday to mothball the partly built facility and conduct a study to see if there's any legitimate public use for it. The study is due by October.

"We will decide whether there's a need for the facility or whether to sell it," state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, told colleagues.

Until a few weeks ago, the plan for the beleaguered academy was to convert it into a 500-bed residential facility for at-risk juveniles from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk counties. It was to be operated jointly by the Department of Education and the Department of Juvenile Justice.

But that fizzled when the Department of Juvenile Justice made it clear a few weeks ago that it had no interest in a program that targets youths who haven't been convicted of any crimes. Tampa lawmakers now find themselves with a half-built complex opposed by many neighbors, unwanted by most state agencies and increasingly viewed as a boondoggle by colleagues.

The bill now awaiting a vote by the full House would authorize the state to seal up the facility while a study is conducted on possible public and private uses for the school site. Lee, who still hopes the academy will wind up serving at-risk minors, said another option is to sell the facility as a way to recoup some of the money already spent on the school.

"This bill will give me some time to see if I can find an exit strategy," Lee said.

The $30-million project originally was intended as an alternative reform school for 800 of Florida's most dangerous teenage law-breakers. But as the project changed hands and enthusiasm waned, the school's purpose was changed to accommodate minors accused of lesser crimes.

The Adam Paine Academy was mired in controversy almost from the get-go. Legislators in 1994 created a not-for-profit organization, the Alternative Education Institute, or AEI, to manage the project, funded by telephone, electric and natural gas taxes. The Department of Education and the Department of Juvenile Justice were left out of any oversight.

To build the facility, AEI hired Griff Mills Inc., a company formed by stockholders solely to bid on the project. Concerns soon arose over how Griff Mills was spending money. After $9.5-million had already been committed to building the school, officials in 1997 froze more payments.

Months later, the state Inspector General's Office issued a blistering report on Griff Mills and AEI. Of more than $4.8-million tax dollars earmarked for construction, the company spent $1.4-million on dividends, travel expenses and consulting fees, some of which went to four Griff Mills stockholders, the report found. What's more, Griff Mills and AEI bought too much land for the 359-acre campus and overpaid for it, the report found.

The project has also been dogged by a civil lawsuit filed by a south Hillsborough community that doesn't want a reform school built in its backyard.

Legislators last year abolished AEI and handed the unfinished academy to the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Hillsborough School Board. But the project already was losing steam. The main objection by Juvenile Justice officials was that the program targets youths who haven't been convicted of any crimes.