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Sidewalk likely won't be in as school starts

Bickering between government agencies has delayed a proposed sidewalk along George Street near the new Marlowe Elementary school.

Children walking to the new Marlowe Elementary School from neighborhoods north of Gulf High School probably won't have a convenient sidewalk to use when school opens Aug. 23, officials said.

"We'll have to ask moms and dads to work with us a little bit," Superintendent John Long said. "I hope that they'll urge their kids to walk a few extra blocks to use the (existing) sidewalks."

School officials wanted a sidewalk installed along George Street to provide students who live north of Gulf High School a direct walkway to school. But the project has been delayed for months as the district and county wrangle over who is responsible for building it.

The city of New Port Richey is likely to begin installing a sidewalk along the west side of George Street from Gulf Drive south to School Road. The school district has decided that it will continue the sidewalk south to Cecelia Drive, across the street from the new school. But it's unlikely that the work will be finished by opening day.

The district doesn't want to start its end of the project until New Port Richey finishes its work. That won't happen until late next week at the earliest because the City Council has not approved the project, said Tom O'Neil, the city's director of public works. Approval is likely to come Tuesday. Both the city and the school district will build about 1,000 feet of sidewalk.

"I don't want the kids walking in the street, but we wouldn't want to put in a sidewalk to nowhere," said Ken Trufant, the district's director of new construction.

When asked if the sidewalks will be ready for the start of school, Trufant replied: "Probably not."

It's an important issue because almost all of the school's 600 students will be walkers. The district will operate only one bus to the school, and it will be reserved primarily for disabled children.

The $6.9-million school is needed to help alleviate crowding at three nearby schools. Built in less than a year, the school is scheduled to open its doors Aug. 23.

The district is putting in a new sidewalk east of the school along the north side of Cecilia Drive. The sidewalk will connect to one along Madison Street, which students may use instead of walking along George Street, although it's several blocks out of the way. Long fears students won't make the extra effort.

The district has been asking the county to install a sidewalk along George Street since January, according to district records. In January, Trufant wrote to the county about his "serious concerns with the lack of sidewalks leading to the school." Trufant said he received no reply from the county.

In April, Trufant wrote to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and expressed similar concerns. The neighborhood's sidewalks are "less than adequate, perhaps even dangerous in some instances," Trufant wrote.

About a week ago, Long decided he couldn't wait any longer. He asked the county if he could build the sidewalks on the county's right of way along George Street. County officials gave Long the go-ahead. Long said he still thinks the sidewalk is the county's responsibility.

"I just felt this was wrong: kids walking in the street while government argues," Long said. "I don't feel like I had a choice. What else can I do when (the county) simply says, "No, we're not going to put the sidewalk in?' "

Long said county administrators told him they would not put in the sidewalk along George Street because gas lines are buried there. Long said the gas company told the district that installing a sidewalk would not affect the gas lines. The county did install about 300 feet of sidewalk on the south side of Dahlia Avenue.

The apparent lack of cooperation between the district and the county is the latest in a string of problems. The two have butted heads over assessing impact fees on new schools, ownership of a Land O'Lakes park and assessing a new impact fee to help alleviate school crowding.

Long did say that the interim county attorney, Robert Sumner, has brought in a new "spirit of cooperation." That said, district officials said they are still frustrated over how the sidewalk issue unraveled.

"We really did try to push this all the way through," Trufant said.

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