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School race centers on Homosassa

Whoever replaces David Hickey as superintendent of schools in November will inherit what Hickey calls his biggest disappointment: the "fiasco" at Homosassa Elementary School.

So it is no wonder that the three candidates have made the construction flaws at the school, and the school district's response to them, a focal point in their campaigns.

For Republican Ted Sgouros and Independent Ansel Briggs, both school system outsiders, the issue has allowed them to draw a clear distinction between their viewpoints and that of the Democrat who is considered the front runner: Sandra "Sam" Himmel.

Himmel, who has been on the School Board for the past eight years, has far more campaign funding, name recognition and history in the community than her opponents. But that School Board experience, and her long history in the district, has provided Himmel's opponents with some of their best ammunition to date against her.

Sgouros, 57, points to Himmel's campaign slogan _ "Proven Leadership."

"Where's the proof?" Sgouros said. "She is not a proven leader. She is a weak leader and she would make a weak superintendent."

He said he bases that conclusion on the fact that he has not seen Himmel take a strong stand on the Homosassa construction problems. From meetings he has attended and press coverage he has seen, Sgouros said Himmel has actually had very little to say about the issue at a time when other board members have taken more of a lead.

"The board and Sam Himmel should have taken more definitive action," he said.

Himmel responds that she has taken a leadership role.

When the district's top officials said they had heard that poor workmanship at the school might have been covered up, she called for an investigation. She also cites the fact that she has taken the time to talk to the community leaders in Homosassa as well as contractors, parents and students.

While she hasn't spoken up every time the issue is raised at meetings, Himmel said she hasn't needed to speak up when she has agreed with what other board members were saying.

Sgouros said he believes the board needed to question more and push harder for real action from investigative agencies, which to date have taken no disciplinary action against the people responsible for the problems.

In his opinion, the contract between the school district and builder R.E. Graham was broken as soon as the district discovered that the new cafeteria and media center were riddled with construction flaws.

At that point, the district should have stopped all activity and closely examined all the alternatives including doing a cost analysis of what it would have cost to remove Graham from the job site, Sgouros said. Once the board had all the details and could make an informed decision, it should have immediately made all that information available to the public.

"That would have dissipated the feeling that government was covering up," said Sgouros, a career educator who has worked in various places as a school administrator and superintendent.

But Sgouros said that what the board did instead was to allow its attorney to tell them what to do. Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick told board members at the first meeting after the serious flaws were revealed that the contract required them to allow Graham to fix the mistakes.

In fact, other than removing the district's project manager and the inspector who failed to do all the required inspections needed on the school, all other principle players in the project have remained on the site working on renovations and remediation.

"The School Board shouldn't have rubber stamped what the lawyer says," Sgouros said. While the district has an obligation to listen to what the attorney is saying, sometimes even if the decision is a risky one that might land the district in litigation, the morally right thing must be done even if it conflicts with what the attorney is saying.

"There is a moral obligation well beyond legal obligation" in some issues, he said.

Sgouros said that if he were elected, he would make it clear that the superintendent and not the attorney will lead the operation of the school district.

"He's a consultant," Sgouros said. "He's not supposed to be a replacement for a board member or the superintendent."

Briggs also expressed concern about the role Fitzpatrick has played. While some have called Fitzpatrick "the sixth board member" because of his active participation in board discussions, Briggs said he has taken on a much stronger role in the Homosassa issue because there is a void of leadership from the board and Hickey.

"They've allowed him to be not even just the sixth board member, but the de facto superintendent," said Briggs, who is retired and has worked as an advocate for people who have run into trouble with government agencies. Previously, the 65-year-old Detroit native has worked as a mental health assistant, a counselor for a runaway program, a fisherman, a steeplejack and various other professions.

Briggs said he also has seen little from Himmel indicating that she can be a leader in a difficult situation. "You have to be a toe stepper. You have to be able to step on toes," Briggs said. "How can you get change with Sam Himmel when she is so well-connected?"

Briggs and others see Himmel as a "good old boy" candidate because she has connections with other political figures primarily due to her father's, Walt Connors, role as the longtime court clerk. In addition, Himmel is also related to Fitzpatrick. His brother Mike is married to her sister Brenda.

In addition to criticizing Himmel's lack of action, Briggs also has criticized the district for failing to create procedures that make district employees accountable for doing their jobs right. In the Homosassa Elementary situation, an internal investigation cleared employees all the way up the chain of command, even though it faulted project manager Sam DiGuglielmo. By then he already had retired, citing health issues.

Both Briggs and Sgouros have said that more is needed to be done to discipline those who had oversight on the project. They both also agree that construction bidding rules need to be upgraded so that projects with a bid well below other bidders get more scrutiny. Graham underbid the nearest bidder by approximately $250,000.

Himmel, 49, said she knew the Homosassa project would be one of the key issues in the superintendent race. She said she has heard the criticism leveled at her by her opponents, especially at a political forum before the Citrus County Council in August.

She does not think much of it is fair.

Himmel said all her actions haven't been in the public at board meetings. She said she has visited the Homosassa school. She attended the Civic Club meeting in Homosassa and has continued to talk to residents there concerned about the issue.

Himmel, a former teacher who has run her father's office supply business since 1982, said she also has visited the Homosassa children, who have been attending classes in the Crystal River Primary and Crystal River Middle schools since classes began Aug. 9.

After seeing the renovations under way at Homosassa and realizing they were far from done, she publicly argued that the district shouldn't rush to move children back to the school. Instead, they should be sure they are ready before making that move especially since the children seemed to be doing well and enjoying their surroundings at Crystal River.

When Homosassa residents raised an issue about some workers on the school site drinking beer before beginning their shift, Himmel reported her concerns. While she isn't sure that call made a difference, she learned later that the crew had been fired.

"Basically, I think that I've been very active in the whole thing," Himmel said.

The one area where she has some criticism of how the issue was handled concerns the internal investigation. If she had been superintendent when the flaws were revealed, Himmel said she would have immediately begun an investigation.

Beyond that, she said she has largely agreed with the board as the issue has unfolded.

"As long as the board was going in a direction that I agreed with, I didn't see any reason to get up and rant and rave. You know, I've never gone on and on with an issue," Himmel said.

Himmel also has maintained over the years that her family connections to Fitzpatrick has never caused a conflict of interest. She has defended his strong voice on the Homosassa project as logical since the board needs to understand the legal implications of whatever actions they take.

Himmel said she understands why the Homosassa issue has everyone's attention, but she is not sure the board should bear the brunt of the blame. "For some reason, people think it's the board's fault," she said.

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

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