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Small jobs cash may shift to new school

School Board members abruptly abandoned a plan to spend nearly $4-million on small projects Tuesday night when they learned that some of the money could be applied to bigger jobs, such as building new schools.

Several board members said squirreling away money for a new elementary school seems like a better idea than some of the items on the small projects list.

Specifically, they mentioned $40,000 for new tennis courts at Powell Middle School, $5,000 for new sprinklers for the planters in Moton Elementary's courtyard and $30,000 for a concrete wall at Chocachatti Elementary that kids would use to bounce balls against. Just for starters.

Board members said they were under the impression the small projects budget was fed by streams of cash that were restricted in how the money could be used. They thought the money could go only for improvements to existing schools.

But after the St. Petersburg Times reported Tuesday that at least $500,000 _ and perhaps more _ could be diverted to new school construction, board member Jim Malcolm urged that the small projects plan be reconsidered. And other board members quickly agreed.

District officials have said repeatedly that they need to build at least one new school _ most likely an elementary school _ within the next three to five years. So far, they have not been able to find much money for a building fund.

Malcolm and other board members said they would have scrutinized the small projects differently had they known the money could have been used for new schools.

"I'm not looking at vast chunks. Maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars for starters. It doesn't take too long before you have a serious chunk of money," Malcolm said. "If it turns out to be a half-million dollars, that turns out to be a decent contribution."

A new elementary school could cost $10-million to $12-million.

Board members reviewed the small projects list last week and removed only about $100,000 worth of items from the $4-million list. Now, they will review the list again at an April 9 workshop. A final vote is likely on April 16.

Each year, schools submit a wish list of small projects for their campuses. And though some items are scratched before the board sees the list, most that get the superintendent's nod of approval are granted.

Malcolm said the annual ritual has created a climate of almost automatic acceptance. He took responsibility for not knowing the alternatives. But he said he wishes the superintendent's staff would have offered up the alternatives to begin with.

Malcolm said the Times posed a question that had not occurred to him and other board members when a reporter asked finance director Carol MacLeod about other possibilities for the money.

Board member Gail David said district staffers were not misleading the board. But she said she wishes they would have offered more details. Board member Sandra Nicholson said: "If you don't ask the right question, you don't get the right answer."

For her part, MacLeod told board members Tuesday night that there was "obviously some miscommunication." Asked after the meeting if board members should have known their options earlier, MacLeod referred questions to board members themselves.

Superintendent Wendy Tellone urged board members not to be hasty in slashing projects. "I think these projects are very important," Tellone said.

Board members said some of the projects _ such as an upgrade to kitchens at two schools, new turning lanes in front of three schools and money to fill sinkholes at Springstead High School _ will no doubt survive. But the new review means some projects will be delayed.

_ Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.

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