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School panel cites lack of cooperation

Even as the Blue Ribbon Committee on Wednesday detailed how it would prepare its final report on the Homosassa Elementary School construction fiasco, members expressed growing concerns about how many questions they will be able to answer.

Several members have concluded that the very people who have asked for their help in getting to the bottom of the situation are blocking their progress in reaching a conclusion.

Previously, documents that committee members requested didn't come for weeks or, in one case, until the School Board member who serves as the committee's liaison requested them herself.

And as of Wednesday's meeting, committee members still have not gotten to talk to key school district officials, despite assurances by superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel that her staff would cooperate.

Committee chairman Donald MacDonald said he had planned separate interviews with Alan Burcaw, director of facilities and construction, and James Hughes, executive director of support services. When the interview was set up, he learned that he would be talking to both at the same time.

He said that wasn't acceptable.

"I don't know what's going on," he said. "The people who say they want us on their side, they're not cooperating."

Gesturing at his brow, MacDonald said, "I've had it up to here."

Committee member Phyllis Dixon pointed out that, on the district's own Web site, it describes the relationship between the district and the Blue Ribbon Committee as cooperative. Documents were to be made immediately available, and staffers were going to work with them.

"You don't need to use your energy up beating on the locked door saying please provide the documents you asked me to read," said committee member Priscilla Watkins.

"Or please provide me access to the people you asked me to interview," Dixon added.

The committee Wednesday also took a renewed interest in the issues of what happened to the rebar and grout bought directly by the school district to reinforce the walls of the new media center and cafeteria at Homosassa Elementary. The material never made it into the walls.

Although other members of the committee have dismissed the issue of the grout and rebar, the committee has received several inquiries recently from the public urging the group to take a better look. Dixon also pointed out that finding out how much reinforcement was missing _ and where it might have gone _ was chief among the questions the School Board specifically wanted the committee to answer.

She offered the free services of a friend who has expertise in nondestructive testing. That expert could visit the campus and examine the walls to find out whether rebar was put into places it shouldn't be.

Previous testing ordered by the school district was instead focused on whether rebar and grout were in the places that the plan required them to be. In many cases, they were not.

The committee agreed that it should try whatever method necessary to answer the School Board members' questions, and agreed to offer the free testing.

"Do you think they'll let you on site?" MacDonald asked. "I couldn't even get into a job meeting."

"This is such a hot topic and it is a charge that they gave us," said committee member Ken Blocker. "It will be interesting to see their response when we ask the question."

Previously committee members have discussed why much of the rebar bought by the school district for the project was sent to "Robbie's Farm" _ a reference to builder R.E. Graham's Sumter County business address _ rather than directly to the school site.

To not require that records be kept of actual deliveries to the school creates "a tremendous potential for fraud and abuse," said committee member Michael Eid.

Committee member Karen Gaffney called it "the fox guarding the hen house."

Chris Lloyd, a community member who has been following the Homosassa saga since it was first publicized in May, urged the committee to look deeper. He also pointed out that the purchase order for the rebar was dated after some of the steel rods already had started to arrive on site.

Committee members also noted that more rebar was purchased than what was mentioned when the State Attorney's Office reviewed the project last summer.

That fact prompted an immediate response from Diane Toto, president of the Homosassa Civic Club, who also spoke to the Blue Ribbon group Wednesday. She said the prosecutor from the State Attorney's Office was given bad information.

"The people feeding him the information were not telling him the truth," Toto said. She added that, in some cases, key documents in the case have changed since the public first began to question the project.

Toto also told the group that she was scheduled to meet today with that prosecutor, Mark Simpson, to talk to him more about the case and present new concerns.

The Blue Ribbon Committee is slated to meet again at 3 p.m. Wednesday. Its target date to report to the School Board is early March.

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

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