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Schools may buy bigger chunk of land

The district is talking about purchasing more property near the 25 acres it had already planned to buy in the Lecanto area.

School officials, who already plan to pay $163,800 for 25 acres adjacent to the Lecanto school complex, this week discussed purchasing even more property in that area.

The land is needed for expansion. But money for the land would be only part of the cost.

The 25 acre plot, as well as the additional property, is home to many gopher tortoises. In addition, a dead tree on the site is thought to house the nest of a Southeastern American kestrel, a small bird of prey. The bird and the gopher tortoises are protected species, and the rules related to development around a kestrel nest could require a 165-yard perimeter buffer.

School Board attorney Spike Fitzpatrick told the board Tuesday that he and school construction officials have met with representatives of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They have learned that if the school system places kestrel nest boxes on the site, the district would be clear to tear down the tree and make way for construction.

Fitzpatrick suggested that the exercise might provide a good educational opportunity for students. They could build the boxes and help monitor the small raptors as the birds come and go from the nests each season.

The gopher tortoises are another matter. When development is about to begin, the district probably will do what it did when faced with a similar situation at Forest Ridge Elementary School: hire an environmental consultant to round up the animals and relocate them.

When the district bought the Citrus Springs Middle School site and began building the school in 1993, officials paid the state $35,000 for the right to develop over the burrows of approximately 43 tortoises. That money went into a fund that the state uses to purchase large tracts of land for gopher tortoise preservation.

Four years earlier, when the protected tortoises were found on the site of Rock Crusher Elementary School, the district paid about $2,500 to relocate the animals to a different site on the 104-acre tract.

School officials haven't decided what to do with the 25 additional acres in Lecanto. But as they discussed the matter Tuesday, several School Board members seemed interested in expanding the purchase.

The Lecanto complex, off County Road 491 just north of Grover Cleveland Boulevard, is 160 acres and includes Lecanto Primary, Lecanto Middle and Lecanto High schools as well as the district's Instructional Resource Center, the CREST school and the transportation complex for central Citrus.

The new property could become the home of a centralized transportation center. Then again, considering the growing high school population, the district may have to consider expanding Lecanto High, Fitzpatrick noted.

The latter scenario prompted the attorney to recommend that the School Board expand the purchase beyond the 25 acres.

"God isn't going to make any more dirt," he said.

More land is available adjacent to the two parcels currently set for purchase from the Rauch Trust. A large portion of the trust's land is up for sale to the state's Conservation and Recreational Lands program.

Board member Carl Hansen noted that although the district hasn't decided what to do with the land, the price and the location of the parcels make them attractive. Board member Mark Stone also expressed support for an expanded purchase.

The School Board probably will vote on the purchase at a special meeting slated for Sept. 28.

In other action:

+ The School Board approved the 2000-01 budget and a lower tax rate without public comment. The $147-million spending plan will be partially financed with a tax rate of 8.571 mills, or $8.57 in tax for every $1,000 of appraised taxable property value. For the owner of a $75,000 home with the $25,000 homestead exemption, the tax bill to support schools will be $428.65, or $18.50 less than last year's.

+ The board approved a leave of absence for Crystal River Middle School principal David Hickey. It began Wednesday and will last through Nov. 7, which is Election Day. Hickey is running for the school superintendent's job.

+ In a closed session, the School Board expelled the first student of the new school year. The boy, a ninth-grader at the Renaissance Center, was expelled for the rest of the current year for possession of a weapon and drugs.

+ The board approved an increase in the maximum amount of purchases that require a sealed bid. Previously, school officials needed to secure sealed bids for any purchase of $15,000 or more. The board, following a change in state law, increased that amount to $25,000.

The move inspired comment from Ansel Briggs, who is running against incumbent Pete Kelly and Hickey for the school superintendent's job. Briggs, a non-partisan candidate, said the district still hasn't fixed all the purchasing problems that were uncovered during a 1995 painting project, which was not bid according to policy. He asked the board to consider holding a public hearing before making the change. Board members, without comment, unanimously voted in favor of the new policy.

+ The board approved Jimmie Bryant as the new assistant director at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute. She fills the position left vacant when Danny Woods retired at the end of the past school year.

+ The board said it will continue to seek solutions to a problem brought to it by Citrus resident Frank Briercheck, who asked the system to do something about dangerous traffic situations in front of the school district's Inverness offices.

Briercheck said he recently saw students running out into traffic at that location or smoking while sitting on the District Services Center sign at Main Street and Montgomery Avenue. Officials said they are aware of problems in that area and that Inverness police and the school resource officers monitor the area regularly.

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