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Board okays panel to look into school construction

Given that Homosassa Elementary School withstood two tropical storms with little damage, its new buildings may not be very weak after all, School Board member Pat Deutschman said Tuesday.

"Mother Nature gave it a good test," she said, indicating that concerns about the buildings were overstated.

Despite that new confidence, Deutschman and her board colleagues prepared to appoint a 10-member citizens committee to investigate the school's construction debacle.

First, though, the board had to determine whether one potential panelist, attorney Karen Gaffney, had a conflict of interest. For a dozen years, Gaffney was corporate counsel to Berryman & Henigar, the engineering company that inspected the construction.

Board members resolved the issue by asking Gaffney whether she had a conflict.

She said no.

That done, the board unanimously approved the volunteers' appointment. Named to the Blue Ribbon Committee were Gaffney, Kenneth Blocker, Wayne Jordan, Phyllis Dixon, Priscilla Watkins, Jack Campellone, Michael Eid, Robert Kegel, Donald McDonald and Allen McLaughlin.

At the workshop last week when board members tentatively picked their slate, they also discussed whether Gaffney, the Hernando County School Board's attorney, had a conflict serving on the committee, given her relationship with Berryman & Henigar.

Though the engineering firm was hired to inspect the construction project, it was later discovered that the school was riddled with construction flaws. Berryman & Henigar's employee, Harold Varvel, said the contractor failed to call for some inspections. Varvel also said he reported to the district that uninspected work was going on at the site, though district officials denied getting such a warning.

Board member Lou Miele chose Gaffney as his pick for the committee because of her experience in school law. After questions arose last week about a potential conflict, he called to talk to her about the concerns. Miele said Gaffney told him she stopped representing the firm because the structure of the company had changed and her services were not needed anymore.

The board set 7 p.m. Oct. 13 as the panel's first meeting. Its deadline for presenting its conclusions will be March. Deutschman was appointed committee liaison to the board.

The board wants the committee to address the question of missing steel and concrete grout that should have been placed in the walls of the new cafeteria and media center. The board also wants the panel to discuss whether the district should have looked more closely into the contractor's bid when it came in $250,000 less than the next closest bidder on the $4-million project.

Board member Patience Nave said she wants the panel to review the contractor's choice of masons and whether they were substandard, unlicensed and paid in cash.

Board members will ask the 19 applicants not appointed to the committee to serve as a resource for the panel.

In other action Tuesday, Homosassa project engineer Ted Williamson told board members that repairs to the defective cafeteria building are nearly 75 percent complete.

Williamson predicted that the cafeteria would be fixed by the end of October and that builder R.E. Graham estimated it will take another two months to repair the media center. That work has not yet begun. Even when the repairs are complete, workers must spend several weeks refinishing the walls, cleaning the building and replacing the floor, Williamson said.

Grant Crockett of Rimkus reported to the board that the final report on the roof of the renovated building was completed and "the basic conclusion is the roof is in good condition."

Questions about the integrity of the roof were raised by a former mason on the project and by Jimmy Schilling, the engineer who first raised public questions about the quality of the construction at the Homosassa project.

"We didn't find any problems, anything alarming," Crockett said.

He said the cracking in the concrete roof connections were not major or unexpected. He also said that reports of too much flexibility in the roof were exaggerated. He had been on the roof and it was flexible but if it moved the 4 inches reported by the former mason, it would have already collapsed, Crockett said.

Collins Conner can be reached at 564-3623 or connersptimes.com. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendtsptimes.com.

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