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Crack raises more building flaws

Nearly two years after serious construction flaws at Homosassa Elementary School first came to light, a new concern has emerged: a worsening crack in the floor of the new cafeteria.

School district officials on Wednesday received an engineer's report urging testing of the soils beneath the building foundation. The district canceled breakfast in the cafeteria Thursday morning.

Central Testing Laboratories representatives examined the crack and determined that the building was safe. Children were back in the cafeteria for lunch.

But that's not the end. The district will begin a deeper study - what caused the crack? what will be needed to repair it? - superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel said during a news conference Thursday afternoon.

The crack might be easily fixed. Then again, it could be evidence of a serious structural problem, officials said.

"There are a number of things it could be, and until we know, it's supposition," said Alan Burcaw, director of facilities and construction.

The crack has been visible for months and was noticed in July, when school officials walked through the building with the project engineer, Ted Williamson.

School officials determined the crack was not a serious concern at the time. They decided to monitor it. In January, project manager Clyde Douglass noticed that the crack appeared to be getting larger. He observed a height difference - a fraction of an inch - had appeared between one side of the floor and the other.

The district brought in Edward Czarnecki of Engineered Structure Services, Inc.

"This settlement could be due to consolidation of the underlying soil or a sinkhole," Czarnecki concluded. "In order to repair the problem, it is necessary to determine the full extent of the settled area and establish the probable cause for the settlement. To do this, further investigation is necessary."

He recommended that the district hire a licensed professional to examine the floor elevations and roof framing system elevations, and also to test for sinkholes. He also recommended that the district hire a geo-technical engineer to examine soil under the cafeteria and around the foundation. "The soils investigations performed to date do not have any subsurface soils data in this location," he noted.

Dick Dolbow, the school district's building official, said soil borings are done at random samplings on a job site and, in this case, just didn't hit the exact spot where the crack has developed.

Thursday's news frustrated residents who have been watching the school's construction problems since they were first revealed in May 2004. That is when the district learned that the walls of the new media center and cafeteria lacked reinforcement, and that connections between the walls and the roof were improper.

Winston Perry said he was "not surprised" that cracks have appeared and worsened. It usually takes a year or so for a building to settle. Perry, who is an expert on construction testing, analyzed the reports that showed how the contractor compacted the soil on the job and does not believe it was done properly.

Perry raised that alarm with district officials after the construction flaws became public.

He said the compaction was supposed to be done in 6-inch layers called lifts, but that the reports don't show that is what happened. With so much fill brought in for this job, that would have been important.

"It's a crime what they've done," Perry said.

"At what point is someone going to be responsible?" asked Diane Toto, president of the Homosassa Civic Club. "At what point, is it a crack in the floor, is it when the walls fall down? When someone gets killed? What will it take to fix the school the way it needs to be fixed?"

Toto said she was especially frustrated because residents raised questions early on about the soundness of the school's foundation. She has also questioned the district on why Rimkus Consulting Group, the firm hired to be the district's "third set of eyes" on the job, was paid $95,000 to guarantee that the school was safe for children - yet never put that contention into writing.

"Maybe that's why: The school is not safe and kids should not be occupying the building," she said.

Ansel Briggs, another Homosassa resident who spoke out about the problems at the school, said he has never gotten an answer to his questions about the soundness of the slab and the steel inside the slab.

"I have a deep concern about it. I've always had a deep concern about the slab and now they've put the grout into (the walls) and they're heavier," Briggs said. "What a waste of taxpayers' money."

Dolbow said he has looked at some of the reports on the foundation and the soils under it from before the time the slab was poured. He said the district's paperwork indicates that the soil was properly compacted before the slab was constructed. Since the questions were raised about the school, additional testing was also done on the footers of the foundation confirming their width and depth and that steel was installed where it belonged.

Mike Mullen, the district's executive director of support services, said he expects Central Testing Laboratories to submit a proposal to him today outlining what needs to happen next.

Who will pay for the repairs is another issue. Mullen said it is not unusual for the district to seek help from the builder. In this case it's R.E. Graham Contracting, which already owes the school district for unfinished work at Homosassa. Graham is also facing multiple lawsuits connected to Homosassa and a county building project as well as unrelated drug charges.

Officials said that concrete cracks are not unusual in building projects in Florida since the material can expand and contract in temperature extremes.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or