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Schools might create agency

Pasco and Hernando are considering forming a shared team to meet inspection requirements outlined by a new law.

School administrators from Pasco and Hernando counties as well as from Pasco-Hernando Community College may join forces to create an agency to inspect and permit their construction and renovation projects.

The idea is under consideration because a new law passed last spring soon will require districts to obtain county building permits on all maintenance and construction projects costing more than $5,000, of which there are thousands each year. The new law also requires such projects to pass muster under certified electrical, plumbing, and building inspectors upon completion.

Currently, school officials don't have to obtain a building permit for school construction. Instead, they submit their plans to the state Department of Education, or hire independent architects to conduct "peer reviews" to ensure the plans meet state building codes.

School maintenance projects are handled internally, and are not permitted or inspected outside of the district's work crews.

But starting July 1, 2001, school districts and community colleges would have to submit their construction plans to their county building departments for approval, just like any other commercial or private builder.

School officials fear that county permitters already are so swamped that school projects will face delays.

"It's asinine," Grayden Howe said of the new requirements. Howe is in charge of maintenance and construction for Hernando County schools. ". . . Hernando County government is always under the gun, and the last thing they want to do is inspect a complicated $30-million school."

The law gives school districts the option of creating their own permitting and inspection departments, but school officials say they fear that could bury them under reams of new paperwork and bureaucracy. Administrators from Hernando and Pasco counties say they may join forces to share the cost of the new responsibility and to keep delays to a minimum.

"We're building schools on a nine- to 10-month construction schedule," said Ken Trufant, Pasco's director of new construction. "This should give us the ability to maintain that kind of schedule."

Issuing the permits may turn out to be the least cumbersome aspect of the new law, if districts undertake the permitting process themselves. Schools could simply incorporate the permits into their current system of work orders for construction and maintenance projects, Howe said. The real headache _ and expense _ will probably come with the new requirement that certified inspectors will have to sign off on all the maintenance and renovation projects over $5,000.

Trufant said Pasco completes about 1,500 to 2,000 such projects a year, ranging from installing new air conditioners to replacing windows. Currently, the district's maintenance crew chiefs are responsible for making sure the projects are completed correctly.

Under the new law, replacing an air conditioner might require an inspection from an electrician, a plumber, a building inspector and someone certified to install refrigeration equipment, officials said.

"Hopefully, we can share some of that expense," Trufant said of the idea to create a joint department with Hernando and PHCC.

A spokeswoman from PHCC said the college also is interested in cooperating with Pasco and Hernando schools, although no formal talks have yet taken place with the college.

_ Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischersptimes.com.

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