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Art$mart going out of business

Sam Peterson just thought he was going to visit his fifth-grade daughter, Chelsea, at the Art$mart store in the Crystal River Mall on Friday. Instead, he found himself jumping in to fight bureaucratic budget cutters.

Friday was the final day for the Art$mart program, not just for this year, but forever. The innovative work experience program for Citrus County fifth-graders, which opened in 1994, has been cut due to budget concerns.

"I just don't quite understand it," Peterson said. "To me, it's disheartening to see things for children taken away when, on the other hand, people are saying there's nothing for children to do."

The program operated an arts and crafts store at the Crystal River Mall. There, all county fifth-graders learned about running a business, from collecting money to greeting customers to designing advertisements.

After talking to the program's teacher, Donna Corey, Peterson started making phone calls and getting signatures on petitions to save the program. He said he had already filled quite a few lines on his petition.

"This galls me," he said. "I pay attention when things are there for kids anymore."

Earlier this school year, fifth-grade teachers were surveyed about Art$mart, and some expressed concerns about getting enough chaperones and keeping the children safe. Some said that the lessons learned weren't appropriate for the age level of the children. Still others went so far as to say that the program was a waste of valuable education time.

Elementary education coordinator Mark Brunner said the decision to end the program was purely a budget decision. With 1,100 fifth-grade students going through the store program each year, the cost to the district was between $50,000 and $60,000, including salaries and transportation.

"This was the last day for this year, and the superintendent has made the decision to not continue it," Brunner said.

"I wouldn't rule out the possibility of looking down the road in the future at having some other kind of activity," he said. "It has been an evolution of these kinds of activities in this district. We had the career ed center in Lecanto several years ago, and that was phased out."

Brunner said the program has provided a valuable experience for students, and he had nothing but praise for Corey and all the work she has done to keep the program going. She will be moving into a different position in the district in the new school year, he said.

Peterson said he hates to see a program enjoyed so much by the children go away and hopes some corporate entity or others in the community would come forward to sponsor the program.

"I really feel that the schools should have taken a more proactive approach to this," he said. "When something is taken away like this, it's a sad day."