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Homosassa cafeteria is close to opening

As the students of Homosassa Elementary School return to their classes this morning, they will find a few subtle changes and will be several steps closer to finally occupying their new cafeteria.

Earlier this week, workers pulled down the construction fences separating the campus from the cafeteria building. Inside the large structure, which has undergone six months of structural repairs because of missing reinforcement and flawed wall and roof attachments, workers are putting the final touches on a new floor and finishing a few minor fire safety features.

"It's going to be a long-awaited happening when we get into that cafeteria," said Homosassa principal Regina Allegretta on Tuesday. "It's going to be a nice gift for the students and the staff. It's just going to be fabulous."

She told her staff Tuesday that the move should happen by Jan. 31, but she hopes they are in the building sooner. Floor finishing will take days yet, and food service staffers still must learn the new equipment. But furniture will begin moving in soon in preparation for the opening, said James Hughes, executive director of support services for the school district.

Allegretta and assistant principal Scott Hebert examined the cafeteria this week, and each spoke about how much the children will enjoy the new stage, the dressing rooms and the larger area for socializing at lunch.

Allegretta also noted that it will be nice for her teachers to again gather to eat with one another rather than in their individual classrooms, and for her food service staff to reunite for the first time this year in one location.

Students returning today also will notice that the focus of repairs will have shifted from the new cafeteria to the new media center, which has many of the same structural flaws the cafeteria had. Over the winter break, workers for builder R.E. Graham finally began the time-consuming task of cutting into walls to begin filling them with reinforcing rebar and grout.

Workers have been sawing through the blocks on the outside of the building to place the reinforcement, a process that kicks up so much dust that school officials warned Graham he could not do the work while students were present.

"They took advantage of the last few weeks when students were not there," Allegretta said. She noted that the work is not just dusty but also noisy and distracting if conducted during the school day.

Graham has estimated that the media center could be completed by March.

That work on the media center began eight months after the flaws were initially revealed when an anonymous tipster provided construction photos showing the problems to the Citrus Times. School officials focused their efforts on getting the cafeteria opened first so it could serve children.

For the first nine weeks of the current school year, Homosassa children and staff were forced to move to borrowed quarters at the Crystal River Primary and Crystal River Middle schools because renovations were not finished. Once they returned to the renovated old building, children began using a large portable classroom as their cafeteria, with food brought in daily from another school site.

Smaller than their old eating quarters but still the only large, usable space on campus for the past two months, that portable has been a functional but challenging gathering area, Allegretta said. "It has done the job for us, but we want a little bit more elbow room," she said. "It will finally be our cafeteria that should have been ours a long time ago."

Once the portable cafeteria building is vacated, it will be used to store some of the equipment and resource materials that have been sitting in the closed media center. That will give students more options for reading materials and provide more of the audio and visual equipment that teachers need for their classrooms.

For the past two months a smaller portable classroom, which once served as a temporary administration building, has stored media and resources for the school. Allegretta said she can't wait to see that campus fully operational and both of those portable classrooms gone from the school's new back courtyard area.

"It's going to be glorious," she said.

Meanwhile, the committee chosen by the School Board to delve to the bottom of how such flawed construction could have been allowed to happen continues its work today. The Blue Ribbon Committee meets at 3 p.m. at the District Services Center to continue compiling its report, which could come to the School Board by March.

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

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