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Alternative school to boost numbers

When the Renaissance Center moves to bigger, permanent quarters in three years, it will not only serve more students but also help children who today are expelled if they are first-time offenders of the district's zero tolerance policy against drugs and alcohol.

A divided School Board on Tuesday voted to expand the existing program as members look for a new site and design a permanent campus for the alternative school.

For months, school officials have talked about what kinds of students they want to serve when the Renaissance Center moves out of the portable classrooms that have comprised the center since it opened in 1997.

They discussed adding elementary school students to the middle and high school students now served, as well as accepting children who have been suspended from their regular schools. But district staffers and school administrators ultimately rejected those ideas, the board was told Tuesday.

A centralized program drawing elementary school students would not be in the best interests of younger children, elementary education coordinator Mark Brunner told the board. Youngsters with behavioral problems would be better served at existing sites.

Also, a program for students suspended for three or five or 10 days would not be practical, said Bonnie Hardiman, director of student services. With so many students coming and going, it would be difficult to design an educational program that would work for each student.

But the staff did support adding a program to keep students who violate the zero tolerance policy for the first time in school rather than expelling them. Last year, 54 students were expelled for simple possession of drugs or alcohol in violation of the policy. With those low numbers, the students could be absorbed into the school, Hardiman said.

Renaissance Center principal David Cook said he favored keeping the program that serves disruptive students but also those who have become uninterested. In both categories, "the need is greater than what we can fill," he said.

While school officials can buy a site for the new Renaissance Center without knowing the exact programs offered there, James Hughes, executive director of support services, told board members that they needed to make some decisions about programs before the new school can be designed.

"I want an associated price tag," said board member Pat Deutschman. "That needs to be a part of the picture before we make that decision."

Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel wanted more information about the programs, and she and Deutschman voted against approving the program concepts now. Board members Patience Nave, Carol Snyder and Ginger Bryant voted yes.

After the vote, Hughes assured the board that he understood the concern and that more information would come to the board as the staff moved forward.

The board has set aside $4.2-million to buy and build a 150-student Renaissance Center. They also discussed expanding enrollment to 200 to 250 students.

Officials have a list of 27 sites to consider for both the new center and a new high school, among other projects. The district owns five of the properties, including a 20-acre parcel in Sugarmill Woods, extra property around the Lecanto school complex, 16 acres at Hernando Elementary School and land at the 104-acre Rock Crusher Elementary School property.

Six more sites are designated in the Citrus Springs area as school locations but are not owned by the district.

An additional 16 parcels are new sites under consideration, including acreage in all corners of the county. Among those: 150 acres next to Crystal River High School that school officials are considering buying. The district recently bid on the property but has not heard back from the owners.

_ Staff writer Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendtsptimes.com or 564-3621.

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