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Opening bell should ring on time

The school superintendent says while plenty of work continues, all the schools should be ready come opening day.

A week ago, Superintendent John Sanders was unsure if schools such as Brooksville Elementary and Springstead High were going to be ready when school begins Aug. 18.

Those schools, and several others that have undergone major renovations to air conditioning systems this summer, were dirty and in disarray. Sanders had even considered the possibility of postponing opening day.

But after meeting Wednesday with principals and the district's chief building inspector, Sanders is convinced that things aren't as bad as he thought, and that the school year will begin on time.

"My worry of a week ago has calmed," Sanders said Wednesday.

He was not the only one worrying. School Board members have mumbled their concerns. Teachers popping in on their schools after a summer away have been surprised at the mess. And people in the community have been asking how the schools could possibly be ready.

Work has been going on at every school. The most drastic air "retrofits" were conducted at Pine Grove, J.D. Floyd, Deltona, Moton and Brooksville elementaries.

But nowhere was the destruction more complete than at Springstead High School. At one point, seemingly every ceiling tile in the school was missing, most of the carpeting was ripped out, giant holes were torn in many walls and ventilation systems were dismantled.

The work is part of a $17.4-million effort to improve energy efficiency in School District buildings by the Trane Asset Management Group. Most of it relates to air conditioning, although some schools' light and water systems were affected. Smaller aspects of the job will continue through December.

Because the work has been so disruptive, the bulk of it had to wait until school ended in June. With a new year set to begin in mid-August, that automatically put work crews on a tight time line.

Sanders said this has proven to be the most ambitious summer of school renovations since he came to Hernando County in 1995. But to outfit schools with equipment that will save money and produce fresher, cooler air and better classroom lighting is worth it.

"I think they've made tremendous strides in getting the job done," Sanders said.

"We did a lot. But (Trane and his staff) said it could be done. They have met their commitments."

Going in, Sanders billed his staff meeting Wednesday as a session to work out contingency plans in case the renovations were not far along enough to guarantee the health and safety of students and staff.

After the meeting ended, however, Sanders said there is no need for a "Plan B," including a contingency just in case school had to be postponed. "Everybody feels like we are far enough along that that's not going to be necessary," he said.

For one thing, Trane has called in 20 extra workers to finish the job. And the schools are working custodians overtime to help with the cleanup. Dust, Sanders said, seems to have found every nook and cranny. "Our custodial staff has just been outstanding," he said.

Sanders does not know how much the overtime will cost. But he said it should fall in line with the annual rush of late summer overtime work. Trane is picking up the tab for its extra workers, he said.

Chocachatti Elementary, a new school that has had workers crawling over it like ants this summer, is also looking good for opening day, district officials said. In fact, Sanders said Chocachatti has been the least of his worries.

Ken Hill, the district's building inspector, said only people unfamiliar with the construction business _ and this summer's projects in particular _ have wavered in their confidence that the schools would be ready.

Springstead High School, for example, is now among the schools closest to being ready. In the main academic building, which saw the most upheaval, workers are now laying new floor tile, painting walls and restoring ceiling tiles.

By the time teachers return Wednesday, Hill said, the place should be spotless. Only the work in the school's gymnasium, which has required a new ventilation shaft to be cut out of a brick wall, might carry past opening day.

Ed Chester, an assistant principal at Springstead, said he and other administrators have been allowed to move back inside the school.

For most of the summer, they have been confined to portable classrooms in the back of the building.

Much work remains, but Chester is optimistic. "I'd say we are going to be very close to being ready," he said.

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