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City, county, schools forming alliance

After roughly two hours of talking about how to help schools keep up with the area's rapid population growth, the Brooksville City Council, county commissioners and the School Board reached an agreement: They needed more joint meetings.

At the end of the rare summit between the three major governmental bodies on Monday, the elected officials decided to set up a committee of representatives from their organizations to meet on a regular basis. They might discuss raising impact fees or asking developers to set aside land for new schools.

Superintendent Wendy Tellone, County Administrator Gary Adams and City Manager Richard Anderson would appoint members to the committee after consulting with their respective elected boards. The three bodies also proposed getting together on a quarterly basis.

Although the meeting ended with several elected officials saying they would have no objection to the new committee's meetings being open to the public, they did so only after briefly speculating ways to sidestep the state's Sunshine Law, which requires nearly all meetings of government bodies to be open to the public.

School Board Vice Chairman Jim Malcolm wondered if appointing just staffers instead of elected officials to the group would keep it outside the Sunshine Law and County Attorney Garth Coller said having one elected member from each government board could possibly keep the committee outside open meeting regulations as well.

After the meeting, Tellone and Malcolm both said the committee would meet in the open. No timeline has been set for appointments to that committee, which will consist of members from all three bodies.

The Monday meeting itself highlighted both the desperate need of School Board members for land as well as the meager communication between the School Board, city of Brooksville and the County Commission.

School Board members stressed the need for more assistance from the county when obtaining land for new schools. County commissioners pointed out that school officials had not objected to any big developments that could overload existing campuses with new students. Brooksville City Council members and staff didn't say much.

"We have lost precious, precious time to build schools," said School Board member John Druzbick, while describing how county regulations had delayed school construction.

Board member Sandra Nicholson wondered about stipulations that required the school district to put sidewalks on streets that don't abut school property.

But County Commissioner Diane Rowden pointed out that school officials had never protested a new development. Instead, Rowden said, school officials had always just said they would have to build more portable classrooms to house the new students.

School Board attorney Karen Gaffney said schools could not turn away new students just because they weren't ready for a massive new housing development. Instead, she said the law required schools to teach every student in the county.

The problems brought up at the meeting prompted officials to brainstorm for some solutions.

Malcolm wondered whether they could ask developers proposing major projects to set aside parcels of land for schools. School Board member Pat Fagan said they may have to look at impact fee levels.

County officials also said it would help matters if district officials could estimate the dollar values of potential impacts of new developments. For example, county officials said, rather than just saying that a new development would force the school system to purchase more portable classrooms, school officials should attach a dollar value to that impact.

"It's time for developers to come in and address our needs," said Commissioner Chris Kingsley.

For all the ideas proposed at the meeting, there did not seem to be any immediate solutions to the county's overcrowded schools. Just to keep pace with rising enrollment, school district officials estimate they will have to build one new school every year.

When discussing the setup of the committee, several officials stressed that the Monday joint meeting had been helpful in bringing elected officials together to air their concerns and propose solutions to mutual problems.

"We have to see if we can work together," Nicholson said. "We have some resources."

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

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