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BUILDING NEEDED, BUT NOT BACKED

The priority should be on classrooms, not offices, School Board members say.

Pasco school superintendent Heather Fiorentino has made no secret of her desire to build a new administration building at the district's Land O'Lakes headquarters.

The need is clear, she has repeatedly told the School Board: Workers are cramped, storage is limited, safety in bad weather is questionable.

School Board members have not disagreed. But they have not supported plans to set aside $10 million for the new structure this year or $5 million more in 2010-11, either.

They've been steadfast at two separate budget workshops this summer that, in their view, other projects demand attention first. Yet when the board convenes today to adopt its 2009-10 capital projects budget, they'll again have to deal with the issue. Ten million dollars for the administration building remains on the spending plan list.

Look for some heated discussion.

"There is no doubt they need one. They don't have to prove it to me," board member Kathryn Starkey said. "But I don't think it's appropriate in this economic climate to build new offices for the administration."

The district should focus on remodeling aging schools and building a new culinary arts institute at Land O'Lakes High, she contended.

Board Vice Chairman Allen Altman agreed.

"I am surprised to see that the superintendent included a new administration building in her proposed budget when the board clearly indicated that we wanted to be sure all of our older schools were renovated before we addressed the administration building," Altman said in an e-mail.

Chief financial officer Olga Swinson suggested that the board should not be surprised to see the item on the project list.

The board did, after all, approve it in July when giving tentative approval to the budget, she noted. And the addition has appeared in several past years' budgets, too.

"It's nothing new," Swinson said. "It has been budgeted for over five years. We have been saving. Every year, we put in a little more money."

Indeed, the project had a $5 million line item in the 2007-08 budget, and a $10 million line in the 2008-09 budget.

It did not appear in the district's 10-year plan, presented back in 2003 amid the campaign for the Penny for Pasco sales tax increase for school construction projects.

The district has architectural drawings for the building, but so far has not moved ahead with construction.

Swinson contended that the only reason the building got any attention at all this year is because the superintendent's staff looked into putting federal stimulus money toward the expense.

After learning that IRS rules would not allow using the money on nonclassroom construction, the conversation turned to where the district might get cash for the project.

Penny for Pasco funds

Board members announced their reluctance to spend local funds, such as impact fees or property taxes, on the structure at this particular time. Swinson said the district would not spend sales tax revenue on the building.

She said it might use reimbursement dollars related to the Penny for Pasco, however.

As part of the pitch to get voters to approve the sales tax hike in 2003, school officials agreed to drop their property tax rate for construction projects by a half-mill (or 50 cents of tax per $1,000 of taxable property), and replace those lost funds with proceeds from the Penny.

Some community members have questioned whether an administration building is the best use of those funds.

Starkey predicted the issue will come to a head during today's public hearing on the five-year plan.

"There are certainly going to be some questions. I would think we can amend it at the board meeting," she said.

"Stay tuned."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

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