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Facts need to be uncovered in school scandal

The following letter was sent to Jon Hamrick of the Florida Department of Education and is reprinted here at the author's request.

The Deparment of Education is finally looking into the Homosassa "SchoolGate" fiasco. It is my understanding that you will only review documents, procedures, etc. I hope you will uncover and report the painfully obvious facts, such as no one did his or her job, procedures and inspections were not followed and/or completely ignored, negligence was rampant, professionals and supervisors didn't supervise and provided inaccurate and/or misleading information to the School Board.

For example, Ted Williamson of the architectural firm Williamson/Decar supposedly examined the media center with district officials after the St. Petersburg Times broke the scandal in May. He reported his findings to the School Board, stating there it was "not a major issue." He further reported that they found a "few more hollow blocks than expected," and "he was confident that the buildings were structurally sound, and repairs could be corrected in less than a month."

We have also suffered through a seriously incomplete and flawed investigation by the state attorney, who failed to depose anyone or even interview the key participants and whistle-blower. Although some board members expressed their disappointment, the state attorney has not revisited the issue. We still remain confident that as more facts come to light, the state attorney will do the ethical thing by reopening his investigation.

The attorney general has also declined to intervene because this is a local issue, and his office claims the state attorney works independently of his office. However, I will again request the AG to intervene. Under Section 16.56, Florida Statutes, a statewide prosecutor in the Department of Law under the Attorney General's Office has the full investigative authority to conduct such an investigation.

We then had to endure the ridiculous exercise in futility of an internal investigation, whereby union-oriented school district personnel asked management if they followed procedures and performed their jobs correctly. What a surprise that the report exonerated everyone and found that everyone did their job. The School Board even questioned the findings; however, nothing changed. Everyone was cleared.

My question remains: If everyone did their job, how did this fiasco occur? Why aren't professional people being held accountable to comparable professional industry standards of their professions and job descriptions? In the "real world" mistakes, oversights, negligence, etc. have consequences, but we have seen no indication that the school district has set the bar above mediocre-to-poor for job performance and accountability.

We are now awaiting the findings of the independent Blue Ribbon Committee. At least the members appear to be seeking the truth. I anticipate their report will stick to the facts and be devoid of any and/all personal comments and opinions.

It was interesting to hear that a Blue Ribbon Committee member discovered that the school district did pay for enough steel to complete the Homosassa Elementary School job. However, the steel was delivered to contractor R.E. Graham's farm in Sumter County instead of to the Homosassa job site. We question what else was paid for by the school district and delivered to the farm? Why would Graham incur double transportation cost for redelivering the steel to the site in Homosassa, if that was its intended destination? Why didn't the purchasing agent ensure its arrival at the site? Since the district office was acting as the purchasing agent, I'm sure they have some inventive and equally obscure explanation.

The concept that since the district paid for enough steel to complete the job that the steel must be there is unacceptable and an unreasonable conclusion. Whether the steel is some place in the walls or not doesn't mitigate the fact that testing confirmed a deficiency of 80 to 88 percent. Structural design and codes dictate where the steel needs to be placed.

We can't assume that the steel is some place in the walls and exonerate Graham from any further responsibility or charges. The walls are not in compliance to code and, by definition, not structurally safe. This constitutes a danger to the welfare of our children, teachers, staff and other friends.

People on site and in the community knew about the problems, but no one did anything to rectify the problem. I even called a town meeting to make everyone aware of the gravity of the situation. To date, school district officials, professionals and board members are still shocked, mystified and appalled that this could have happened.

The district should consider themselves fortunate that a whistle-blower had the courage to come forward. Had the school been occupied, and a disaster occurred that killed children, then the district would be embroiled in civil litigation and criminal charges. Words that now are not applicable, such as culpable negligence, fraud, professional misconduct, etc. would then be politically correct.

Right now, you still have the unique opportunity to correct the situation, reprimand the people involved and put systems of checks and balances in place to prevent this from ever happening again. Demand that people maintain the professional standards of their professions and job descriptions. In the real world mistakes, oversights, negligence, etc., all carry consequences, so why not in the school district?

There are at least 23 people who knew, or should have known, about the deficiencies in the wall construction. It is now up to the district, the superintendent and the Blue Ribbon panel to step up and tell us frustrated taxpayers what happened. How can the School Board expect trust from the public to build other, and much more expensive, schools if they can't even handle this project?

We paid $4-million in taxpayer money for our new school, and we deserve to get what we paid for. Repairing something that was so badly constructed is not the same as brand new.

We're angry and disgusted that the School Board has treated Homosassa as throwaway people and that, to date, no one has been fired, disciplined or even reprimanded. Instead, they've been exonerated! This disruption in the lives of our children will be far-reaching. This situation will probably also cost the students their A rating that the children have worked so hard to maintain for five years.

The lesson that staff and the School Board is teaching is that truth, justice and accountability become casualties when ethically and morally bankrupt individuals are allowed to continue business as usual. Moral and ethical considerations take a back seat when money and reputations take precedence over the truth.

Diane Toto, Homosassa

president, Homosassa Civic Club

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