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Explore all options for Renaissance Center home

The search for a new, permanent home for the Renaissance Center, the Citrus County School District's school for disinterested and disruptive students, has taken yet another twist.

In January, the district thought it had solved the problem when the School Board agreed to buy 22 acres in Lecanto for the new center. The deal was struck over objections that the site, adjacent to the county jail, a state detention center and a hunting area, posed potential safety concerns to the students.

Subsequent news that the county plans to expand the jail to accommodate federal prisoners led to concerns about the message the center's new location, amid a growing complex of detention facilities, would be unintentionally sending to students and their families.

On Tuesday, with three of the five board members hesitant about proceeding with the plans, the board decided to delay work on the project so it could reconsider its options.

For the staff at the Renaissance Center, this new delay is no doubt frustrating. Operating since 1997 out of a handful of portable classrooms next to the district administration building in Inverness, the staff has worked diligently with hundreds of difficult students while being told time and again that better facilities are coming.

This latest holdup, however, is warranted. The staff may feel that the center's needs are being sidetracked again, but the board and the district have some difficult decisions looming and they must be prudent in their allocation of resources. Help is on the way for the hard-working Renaissance team, but a little more patience is needed.

The School Board, as always, has a number of interconnected problems dealing with those old standbys: money and space. It has to make the best use of both.

With the looming classroom space crunch brought on by the state constitutional amendments dealing with reduced class sizes and making prekindergarten programs available to all who need them, the board knows it may have a lot of building in its future. To that list add the existing space needs, most pronounced at the county's three high schools, and special projects such as the Renaissance Center.

The district's solution to space problems has long been to buy more of it. In recent months, the board agreed to buy the Lecanto acreage for the Renaissance Center and a huge tract in Citrus Springs for a high school. It picked up more than 100 acres, about half of it swamp, to expand Crystal River High.

Tuesday's delay on the Lecanto site purchase brought on a suggestion from board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick that the board revisit the other sites that were on the list to be bought. As it happens, Fitzpatrick is part owner of one of the sites.

Before the board considers buying more property, it should look closer at what it already owns.

Besides the excess available land it now has in Citrus Springs and Crystal River, the district has dozens of acres open at the Rock Crusher Elementary School site, open land in Sugarmill Woods, newly acquired property at the Lecanto school complex and room to grow at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute site in Inverness.

Why couldn't any of those parcels become the home of a new Renaissance Center?

The WTI site offers another appealing option. That school is underused now, as the district continues to find ways to attract more high school-age students to its programs. Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel's suggestion to move the Renaissance Center across Montgomery Avenue to use some of that space deserves a closer look.

In fact, the time may be perfect for such a transition. The new director of WTI wants to recast the school's image and make it more attractive, while the Renaissance staff seeks to change the public's perception of its school and students. Why not combine both of these similar missions?

Students at the Renaissance Center, who have shown they struggle in traditional school settings for a variety of reasons, may benefit by sharing space with a WTI that is about to undergo a renaissance of its own. Together, the programs could blossom into a true educational alternative for teens.

The School Board has a responsibility to solve the district's space concerns in the most economical manner possible, and that means making the best use of all of its resources. As the board reopens the discussion on the Renaissance project, it must explore all of its options.

Before the board goes off on another spending spree, it should remember what it already has stored away in its closets. The answer to the space problems may be a lot closer than the board realizes.

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