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Two schools hold breath, cross fingers

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Problems have cropped up in two school construction projects.

At Crystal River High School, it is unclear whether parking and other improvements will be completed by the time school starts in August.

Also unclear: whether the Renaissance Center will get its long-promised permanent home any time soon.

During their meeting Tuesday, three of five School Board members said they were ready to consider other options than purchasing a 22-acre Lecanto site that was supposed to be Renaissance's new home. The school now operates out of portable units at Montgomery Avenue and Highland Boulevard in Inverness.

The Lecanto site is next to the county jail. Board members and the public have had concerns about that proximity in the past, but the worries were renewed recently as the county announced its intention to expand the jail and house more federal immigration detainees.

The school system has a contract to buy the land. The board directed the staff to stop all design work until further notice from the board, or until the property owner finishes some time-consuming development review work with county officials.

Board members Patience Nave and Ginger Bryant still support putting the Renaissance Center on the site. They opposed the motion.

The landowner was to have removed the property from its old development order, which comes with more strings attached than school district officials want to deal with.

The owner has not, so board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick said that could technically mean the seller has already breached the contract.

Board members also said they would consider using the property for another purpose, such as a transportation center.

Instead of deciding Tuesday, the board agreed to call the district's Long Range Planning Committee into a special session to discuss options and report back July 29.

The improvements at Crystal River High School depend on two factors: permits from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and a break in the constant rains that have hampered a site development plan.

The $1.9-million project was to have started immediately after school ended in May so critical parts of the plan, including a new bus loading area and new parking, could be done when students return in August.

As of Wednesday, no work had started.

Officials told the board Tuesday that the permitting process took longer than expected and that permits that were promised have not been received.

Even with permits in hand, workers couldn't have started because much of the work involves moving dirt. And in recent weeks, most of that dirt has been under water.

Fitzpatrick warned the board that the critical parts of the task must be done while students are gone and could be delayed until next year.

In addition to new bus loading and parking areas, the work calls for new tennis courts, a softball field and a practice field. A new access road to Crystal Street was a primary reason the district acquired the new property last year.

The current access road, Eighth Avenue, is too crowded. School officials have worried about student and staff safety.

Nave worried about another problem the delays might create. The overall project was supposed to fix major athletic facility inequities between the boys baseball and girls softball teams. The girls had to play last year at Bicentennial Park, where they were unable to raise money from gate receipts or concessions.

The inequity was one of the problems detailed at the school and in the baseball program through a series of stories in the Citrus Times in April.

"We have to make sure we don't replicate last year's problem," Nave told administrators.

In another issue related to the problems at Crystal River High School, Nave wanted the record to reflect that the board was asked to approve donations related to the athletic programs after the fact.

The board voted to accept a $3,600 donation to the softball program from Lannie Hough, father of softball coach Lanna Hough, and a $20,000 donation from the Mike Hampton Foundation for a sprinkler system for the baseball field.

Board member Pat Deutschman questioned why a donor like Hough couldn't just say he was giving money in the names of individual students. In Hough's case, his daughter filled out individual receipts for girls who did not raise money through a fundraiser, making it look as if they had.

Fitzpatrick said that wasn't allowable because it circumvents board policy.

The board requires that all donations of $500 or more be approved by the board.

Crystal River principal Stephen Myers has been reprimanded over the donations and other issues related to the athletic program.

In other discussion, the board asked Chairwoman Sandra "Sam" Himmel to look into the details of a recent trip to New York by a variety of school administrators and teachers. Nave said she had heard that an "entourage" had gone to see some education consultants who have visited the district.

She wanted to know how the participants were chosen.

"What were the criteria?" Nave said. "Was it just everybody who wanted to go to New York?"

Himmel agreed, noting that at a time when money was tight, such trips needed special scrutiny. It might have even been cheaper to bring the experts here, where more educators could hear them speak.

"New York is a very expensive place," Nave said. "New York is a very exciting place. . . . I do want to know how these decisions are made."

Himmel said Wednesday that she had not gathered the details of the trip. She said she was not questioning travel, but simply wanted to know what information the New York visitors would share with others in the district.

_ Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or