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Crack grows; questions multiply

Just as the construction debacle at Homosassa Elementary School has begun to fade into the past for the staff, the district and the community surrounding the campus, word has come that all is still not right with one of the new structures.

There is a crack in the cafeteria's concrete floor, and it is on the move.

District administrators on Thursday explained that they have been aware of the cracked floor since July. Since then, district officials, school workers and others have kept an eye on the floor to see if the crack would get any larger.

This week came the bad news: It's growing.

Cracks in concrete floors in Florida are hardly unknown. After all, the entire state is essentially one huge, shifting sand pile. Even with expansion joints and other construction elements, cracks happen.

However, this is Homosassa Elementary, the school famously built without reinforcing steel in the walls, among other glaring construction mistakes. The school's structural integrity will forever be an issue, and thus this crack in the floor deserves increased attention.

To their credit, district administrators, acutely aware of the notoriety of this construction project, have been quick to get out in front of this latest round of bad news. They are making themselves and their documentation readily available and are seeking expert advice on the severity of the problem and the best remedies.

As refreshing as this candor is, the public should remain diligent. After all, early on, as the construction nightmare was unfolding, the district and its hired help were reassuring the community that the problems with the walls were minor and easily repaired.

This new round of tests is critically important to determine just what is causing the crack and whether district workers can repair the crack themselves, with minimal school disruption, or if more extensive work is necessary.

If so, don't look to contractor R.E. Graham for help. Graham, who oversaw the botched construction elsewhere on the site, would be responsible for this latest flaw as well. But he is drowning in a sea of legal problems and is out of the picture now.

One very troubling question is whether this cracked slab could have been either anticipated or detected earlier. An engineer who examined the buildings soon after the first whistle was blown on the project pointed out numerous construction flaws and noted that if so much of the work was performed so sloppily, what else was mishandled?

And some in the community more than a year ago questioned whether proper testing had been done of the soils at the site to determine if they had been compacted enough to support the buildings. Dozens of truckloads of fill dirt were needed to prepare the site, and the valid question of just how well the fill was prepared went unanswered as the focus stayed on the unreinforced walls.

Now, the specter arises with this cracked floor of a shifting foundation that could further damage the walls.

Also disturbing is that the district has no plans to inspect the media center for similar foundation cracks. Given the horrible history of both buildings, an over-abundance of caution is warranted to reassure both the staff and the community. Nothing should be taken for granted at this jinxed project.

The community, meanwhile, should resist the urge to overreact to this latest bad news. Cracks do happen in Florida construction, as any homeowner can attest. As Superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel noted, there are cracks in other district schools, too.

The district is already in the process of having analyses performed on the site, and when the extent of the problem is known, the administration must ensure that the correct remedies are followed.

First it was the walls, and the burning question: Where is the steel that was supposed to be inside the blocks?

Now, it is the slab, and the equally vexing question: What is happening below the cafeteria that is causing the floor to split?