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School building chief on mission

For years, Roland "Bo" Bavota circled the world building ships that would carry goods and fuel for businesses.

This fall, the Hernando County school district found those credentials reassuring enough to give him the responsibility for overseeing the building of schools for children. Bavota, 57, is the district's new director of facilities.

Nearly everyone, including Bavota, agrees that the job will be intense. One district projection expects enrollment to increase by 10,000 students over the next decade, rising to 30,000 by 2014. A new K-8 magnet school is set to open next fall, and School Board members foresee more groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings just about every year after that.

It now falls on Bavota, a stout, bespectacled man with a tattoo of a gecko on one arm, to make sure those schools are built to be sturdy and safe.

For now, he is working in a cramped room filled with folders, a couple of hard hats and papers at the district facilities department offices on Mobley Road. He is preparing to move into the offices of his predecessor, Graydon Howe, who retired.

A construction project "takes on a life of its own. . . . It becomes a part of you," Bavota said. "They're like children."

Fantastic but well-grounded voyage

Bavota's path to Hernando has been a winding one.

He graduated from a public high school in Baltimore County, Md., in 1965 and soon entered the world of construction after a few years in the Navy. He worked for a decade at Bethlehem Steel before eventually landing at Sun Oil Co., or Sunoco, where he worked for about 25 years. He said he moved to Florida to be closer to family.

It was at Sunoco that Bavota oversaw shipbuilding all over the world, including a stint overseeing construction in Japan. Superintendent Wendy Tellone said his accounting of such experiences had made him an interesting applicant, among other qualities that stood out in interviews.

"He was down to earth," Tellone said. "He was genuine about keeping costs down."

Still, Bavota will have to analyze construction projects for now without a chief engineer on the district staff. Tellone did not budget for one when submitting her plan to restructure top staff to the School Board recently.

While board members approved the job descriptions, essentially giving Tellone the go-ahead for her plan, several members worried about having to rely on contractors without an in-house engineer.

Tellone said she is considering hiring someone for that position, though probably not in the immediate future.

"I think we can use both" a facilities director and a chief engineer, said board member Sandra Nicholson. She plans to meet with Bavota this week.

For his part, Bavota said he will scrutinize the backgrounds of contractors handling school construction jobs and make it a mission to keep down the number of change orders they submit on projects. He plans to examine how bidders have handled other projects on the scale of school construction.

Bavota added he does not want Hernando to endure the same travails as Citrus County, which has had to assemble a blue-ribbon committee to look at problems in the construction of a new media center and cafeteria at Homosassa Elementary School.

He described questions that he would ask himself while making decisions:

"Are we holding the contractor accountable for quality?"

"Would I hire this person to work under me?"

"Were they a nickel and dime contractor?"

On evaluation forms, Bavota's former colleagues gave him many ratings of 4 on a 1-to-5 scale with 5 as the high score, with a smattering of 3's and 5's. One colleague wrote that Bavota "does not suffer fools."

Another co-worker wrote: "I was able to go home to sleep well knowing he would make good decisions, solve problems, accomplish objectives."

New path offers challenging new goals

Bavota acknowledges the differences between overseeing refineries and ships and administering school construction.

In Japan, he supervised the building of two ships. While managing construction in Pennsylvania, he supervised the $35-million overhaul of a boiler that produces steam for cracking crude oil.

And after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he helped improve security with such jobs as adding new gates.

But schools offer other challenges, of which Bavota said he was aware. For example, they have to hold up against high winds in hurricane-vulnerable Florida.

"Schools have their own set of rules," he said.

In Hernando County, school officials are also in a never-ending search to find more space.

Bavota is already looking at other land-starved school districts that have built schools two or three stories high. He is studying a report on Varsity Lakes Middle School in Lee County to see whether the techniques used in its construction are worth gleaning.

Although just one school is under construction now in Hernando, Bavota is pondering various other renovations, such as new classrooms in the increasingly crowded STAR Center and a new cafeteria at Hernando High.

But he does not expect the relatively quiet period to last.

"This is an exciting time in Hernando County," Bavota said. "The county is just exploding."

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathansptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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