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Permits delay outdoor lab's opening again

Hernando County's long-anticipated environmental education center will take a little longer than expected to open its doors, officials said Monday.

The outdoor science lab on the banks of the Weeki Wachee River, at one time expected to be built by fall 2002 and offering programs by spring 2003, most recently had been slated to welcome students in January.

"That's not going to happen," said curriculum specialist Mary Krabel, who has overseen the project. "We're now hoping to open next fall."

The problem is in the permitting _ the city of Weeki Wachee hasn't issued them yet.

Once the district has its building permits, though, the center should be on its way, said Mark Weaver, who has been writing the center's education plan.

"We're getting there," he said. "We're down to our last hurdle."

The School Board is scheduled to consider hiring a general contractor for the project later this month.

"It's been somewhat disappointing" to be delayed, Weaver said, "but it was somewhat kind of expected as well."

The project first gained steam about two years ago, when the Southwest Florida Water Management District agreed to provide the land and about $750,000 toward construction. The School Board agreed to pitch in a teacher and the curriculum.

Community backers pledged equipment, such as kayaks and microscopes.

School Board chairman John Druzbick said he had thought the center would debut more quickly, seeing that the money, land, designs and commitments all were in place years ago. Then he started hearing about flip-flops about which side of the river the center would be placed on.

"I just don't know what the problem has been," Druzbick said.

Getting the center operational would be nice, he said. "But again, we're working within the system."

Board member Jim Malcolm, meanwhile, was unaware of the center's progress or lack thereof.

"I thought it was a good program. I wouldn't have voted for it if I didn't," Malcolm said. "I know there was a lot of support for it at West Hernando Middle School. . . . It's about time someone tells us what's going on."

Weaver, formerly a science teacher at Central High School, said he has been working out a curriculum for the center that will focus on the Weeki Wachee ecosystem. Lessons will deal with water and animal issues in the area.

The course work will include studies to be completed before students arrive at the center, and interactive research in the field.

"We want to let them see firsthand what they've been studying, make the connection between the real world and their book learning," Weaver said.

Initially, the center will focus on fourth-grade science standards tested on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, he said, although it will be open and available to all students.

If all goes well, the center should be done by early summer, he said, in time for the fall semester.

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (352) 754-6115 or