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NOW'S NO TIME FOR NEW SCHOOL DISTRICT OFFICES

As the Pasco County School District moves toward the conclusion of an aggressive six-year, 20-school construction spree, portable classrooms remain in heavy use across the county. Subtracting buildings listed as offices, pre-kindergarten, physical education, storage, restrooms and the entire campus at the James Irvin Center, the district's master list still totals about 470 portable classrooms.

Even culling the buildings at Mitchell and Ridgewood high schools and Wesley Chapel, Oakstead and Longleaf elementary schools - the five overcrowded campuses just relieved or scheduled for relief next year by the opening of new schools - there remain 344 portable classrooms in the Pasco school district.

The data are relevant because the Pasco County School Board is scheduled to consider an updated five-year construction plan this evening that includes $10 million for an administration building (plus $5 million next year) to move people from portable offices into a permanent structure and to consolidate some functions spread among the central office campus in Land O'Lakes.

If a portable building is good enough for the children, it's certainly good enough for the adults.

The new administrative building is tied to the construction of a $7 million culinary academy planned for Land O'Lakes High School. Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said she hopes the economy of scale will reward the district with a good price by using the same contractor for both jobs. It's a sensible argument. And there is no denying the central offices are cramped.

The timing, however, is problematic. Five years ago, voters approved a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase for new school construction. As part of the campaign, district administrators rolled out their 10-year capital plan with nearly all of the $858 million earmarked for school improvements. Administrative projects were minimal and none was listed at a price above $900,000.

Eight months after voters approved the 10-year sales tax - which was anticipated to pay for $196 million in new school construction - the School Board approved an updated five-year capital plan that included $5 million for a new administrative building to house the departments of finance and human resources. That became the genesis of the current push for new administrative offices.

This work predates Fiorentino's tenure. The School Board adopted that updated five-year plan on Nov. 16, 2004, the same evening she was sworn in as superintendent.

Now, as the building nears final approval, some school board members are questioning the wisdom of moving forward with it at this time.

They should.

The proposed administrative offices come even though the central office staff is down 40 people due to consolidation and job reductions. More importantly, even if the district is using alternative funding for the administrative offices - a rebate from the county in return for cutting its property tax rate to help sell the sales tax - voters had a right to know in 2004 that not all of the district's capital resources were intended for classroom construction.

It is a lottery-like bait-and-switch tactic that will reinforce the perception among some members of the public that schools didn't need the sales tax. It is a scenario best avoided half-way through the life of the Penny for Pasco tax, the administration of which has been beyond reproach.

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