Romney campaign gets $34,000 bill for Land O'Lakes rally

Published Nov. 2, 2012

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County School District officials didn't know what might happen when they agreed to allow Mitt Romney to rally at the Land O'Lakes High School football field a week ago.

The district had never hosted such a large event before.

Now 15,000 attendees and more than $25,000 in damage later, they plan to closely review their policies and procedures for future big draw activities. The district treated the rally as a simple facilities rental request.

"I'm sure it's something the administration and School Board will discuss in the future," said board member Cynthia Armstrong, who's expected to become chairwoman on Nov. 20. "We didn't have any past history to go on. I'm sure the superintendent made the best decision she could make at the time."

As the Oct. 27 rally neared, critics questioned whether schools were improperly promoting the event and whether student groups were being encouraged to participate. Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for Florida governor in 2010, blasted the district for using a double standard by allowing the GOP rally but denying her request to rent a classroom to film a campaign ad two years earlier.

The United School Employees of Pasco has requested several records to determine whether any laws or policies were violated, and has consulted a lawyer.

After the event, the talk turned to the damage left behind — a twisted goal post, torn up sod and rows upon rows of bent metal bleachers chief among them. The district submitted a bill for $33,783 to the campaign on Wednesday, with another $180 added Thursday.

The campaign responded in less than four hours with the message, "Received. We are processing."

Mark Fox, the school district's maintenance director, said slightly more than half of the stadium's aluminum plank seating was damaged during the rally. Those seats are designed for sitting, not for large groups standing and jumping on them, he said. Many of the planks bowed in the middle and had to be replaced.

Fox said the goal post uprights were bent as the wind blew against a large banner that had been attached to them. The pressure curved the aluminum posts inward. The district was able to remove and replace the uprights without getting rid of the entire goal post, which would have cost thousands more dollars.

The sod damage was caused by tractors hauling in a large screen for the audience to see the speakers on stage, he said. That sodding has been fixed so it won't pose a problem for football players taking to the field tonight, Fox said.

School leaders said the preparations and the repairs did not get in the way of student activities.

"Nothing interfered with anything going on with our classes or our after-school activities," assistant principal Jeff Morgenstein said. "We were very pleased we were able to move forward as normal."

Armstrong suggested it would be best for the district to have set procedures for handling similar events in the future. She did not express any desire to stop renting out facilities to organizations.

"When you rent out a facility, you don't know exactly what to expect," she said. "You just cover yourself … and you just move forward."