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Steel delivery to contractor normal, engineer says

Sending much of the rebar needed to reinforce walls at Homosassa Elementary School to the contractor's place of business, rather than directly to the construction site, was a common and acceptable practice, the project engineer assured the School Board on Tuesday.

Delivery of steel to contractor R.E. Graham's Sumter County "farm" has generated questions from the Blue Ribbon Committee that is investigating the botched school project.

The school's new cafeteria and media center were found last spring to be lacking much of the rebar and grout needed to strengthen the walls. Since then, the board has allowed Graham to make extensive repairs to those buildings and bring them up to code.

The Blue Ribbon Committee has sought documentation of how much rebar was actually delivered to the school site, but so far it has been unable to verify the amount. Committee members have noted that if such documentation isn't required, it opens the district up to the possibility of fraud.

Engineer Ted Williamson told the board during its regular meeting that the rebar and other items were delivered to Graham's place of business. The rebar was delivered in straight bars and cut and bent according to the plans; then it was delivered to the school.

"That's not uncommon. That's totally acceptable," he said.

Cafeteria equipment also was delivered to Graham's business, and it soon will be returned to the nearly complete cafeteria. Storing equipment off the job site is not uncommon, Williamson said.

Also Tuesday, the board discussed a recent letter it received from its attorney, Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick, confirming that Graham will receive no more payment draws for the Homosassa project for the time being.

Two months ago, the amount the district was withholding to be sure the repairs were done grew to the same amount that the district still owed Graham, so payments stopped.

Board Chairwoman Pat Deutschman asked what that meant to the district's business relationship with Graham.

James Hughes, executive director of support services, responded that Graham was still working on the repairs, though not with the speed that anyone would like to see.

Williamson said Graham has had 10 to 14 people on the site making repairs to the exterior of the media center. When that is done, he will begin repairs on the inside of the building.

Board member Lou Miele questioned why both sets of repairs can't happen at the same time. Williamson said Graham was doing the best he can with the number of people on the job at this time.

But Miele said Graham could still go hire another crew, as he had promised months ago.

"They promised us more staff," Miele said. "It's not what they promised us. It's still not what they promised us."

Williamson said he could still take that concern to the contractor at the weekly meeting Thursday.

Work at the media center had slowed a bit more this week, said Lance Dombrowski of Rimkus Consulting Group. He said there were a number of workers who had not showed up this week on the job site; when he was at the school earlier Tuesday, work was "down to a crawl."

Still, Williamson said he believes Graham may be able to meet his schedule to complete the media center repairs by mid March.

"They know what they're doing now, and they seem to be doing it much more quickly," he said.

The cafeteria work is nearing its final stages, officials said. Finishing on the floor and training on the new cafeteria equipment is beginning, and the school is planning an opening the week of Jan. 24.

The board also heard a report from Blue Ribbon Committee member Phyllis Dixon.

Several Blue Ribbon members at their last meeting complained that they had not gotten enough cooperation in gathering records and setting up interviews with the district staff.

Superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel and Deutschman, who serves as the Blue Ribbon liaison, defended the district's cooperation with the panel. Himmel explained that she had tried to set up interviews with the staff so the committee chairman, Donald MacDonald, could gather information.

MacDonald had wanted to meet in separate sessions with different employees and Himmel had set up a group meeting. She said she would continue to work with the group to set up times to meet employees.

Himmel also said she believed her staff had been cooperative in providing documents.

Dixon said that she would talk to the Blue Ribbon panel at its regular session today, and that the group would work to better communicate its specific needs.

Dixon also assured the School Board that the committee was working to pull together information about where the rebar on the school project went, since it was an important question in the minds of the board and the public.

Deutschman also suggested that the committee not report to the board until the fourth Tuesday of March _ two weeks later than now scheduled. The fourth Tuesday is a School Board workshop, and the group has more time to discuss more complex issues at workshops.

Dixon said that seemed like a good idea and she would talk to her committee about that today.

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

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