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Station may see changes to protect its future

The school district is looking into ways to help the Marine Science Station survive through future budget cuts.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Last week, the School Board was brainstorming about ways to cut future budgets in case the state's financial news doesn't get better soon.

One of the first suggestions was to study programs that do not pay for themselves. The Marine Science Station wasn't named, but it has always been included in such discussions in the past and has always survived.

The station cannot pay for itself because state funds come to the district based on students assigned to a school. The Marine Science Station has no assigned students; however, thousands of students from around the district visit the station each school year for daylong environmental field trips.

With the upcoming retirement of supervisor Pat Purcell, who has run the program since its inception three decades ago, the question is whether the environmental education center can survive such future budget scrutiny.

Superintendent David Hickey said it will.

"I've known Pat for 30 years," Hickey said. "First, he's a gentleman. Second, he's a scholar. And I know how hard he has worked to keep the Marine Science Station."

Hickey said Purcell's years of experience will be missed but the program will survive, possibly with changes after his departure.

"It may not be financially making money for the district, but it sure is providing an educational program for our students," Hickey said.

Hugh Adkins, who has been assistant principal at Crystal River High School for the past two years, takes over the supervisor's job in February. He will not only run the program, which serves all fourth- and seventh-graders in the district as well as some high school science students. He will also supervise the nearby Academy of Environmental Science, a job previously done by the Crystal River High School principal.

The academy, located across the Salt River from the station, is the district's only charter school and serves high school students who attend for half years as sophomores through seniors.

There has been talk about merging the two programs and finding some new way to meld their curriculum but nothing specific has been proposed yet. Hickey said last week those talks will now be stepped up to see what can be done. But he was not talking about cutbacks in the popular programs.

"We're going to evaluate the curriculum of what is offered out there and maybe have a more integrated curriculum between the schools and the use of facilities such as the boats," Hickey said. "We've also got some high-caliber high school students (at the academy) and we might be able to share them, having them teach the younger children."

Budget scrutiny over the years has shrunk the Marine Science Station program.

Several years ago, Purcell had to return to the classroom as well as direct the station. The school has just one other teacher. The lunchroom was closed a few years ago to save money and overnight trips came to an end. The other six counties that had been part of the program were peeled away.

Miles from the school district's county office, Purcell long ago eschewed attending principals' meetings and avoided being too involved with the district's bureaucracy.

Yet, the program has survived, likely because of the impression Purcell has made on one wave of students after another.

While details of how to use complex math equations or the reasons for the Monroe Doctrine may have slipped out of the minds of former students, their vivid memories of going nose-to-nose with a manatee or touching a wriggling shrimp they just scooped up in a net will last a lifetime.

Past School Board members who have attended the program have stood behind it and parents once inundated a principal with calls, letters and visits when he suggested that it be cut.

Purcell said he would support efforts by the district to expand its environmental education programs. "We've got a county that is rich in natural resources. There are opportunities everywhere," he said.

But Purcell also understands how hard that could be with programs that don't pay their own way. He tried for months to establish a "cow camp" program at the Flying Eagle Ranch in East Citrus, but bureaucratic rules finally overwhelmed the effort.

Still, his parting suggestion to his bosses is that environmental education is vital.

"Kids have a natural curiosity and interest and when you've got that fascination, then you can teach them," he said.

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