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A Times Editorial

Gym idea deserves everyone's support

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002

You can't keep a good idea down, and Citrus County School Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel is doing her best to elevate a plan to convert the old Citrus High School gymnasium into a community center.

Himmel's vision is earning the support of some of her colleagues on the School Board and has sparked the interest of several key people and organizations in the county. Soon she hopes to have the backing of the County Commission and the Inverness Council.

In fact, the only person who doesn't seem thrilled about the prospect of this very sensible and achievable project is superintendent David Hickey. How perplexing and unfortunate it is that the one person we would expect to embrace a venture that has so many clear benefits to students and their parents is failing to recognize the potential.

Fortunately, the School Board doesn't need Hickey's permission to make this a priority. This is clearly an issue of budget and policy, and that responsibility rests directly on the shoulders of the board. But the board does need the cooperation of Hickey and his staff to research and carry out the plan.

Accordingly, board members should exercise that authority over the recalcitrant superintendent by directing him to stop dragging his feet and give them the cost estimates they need to make a fully informed spending decision.

Hickey's reluctance to advance this idea, which was first floated publicly by Himmel last fall, apparently is rooted in his inestimable ego. Because it was not his idea, and because Himmel and some other key backers of the plan did not wait for Hickey and his toadying staff to bless the plan before soliciting support, the superintendent has been a naysaying critic.

In his frustratingly inarticulate manner, Hickey claims that the cost of the project is his biggest concern. Yet, he has not offered concrete estimates for scrutiny by the board and public.

In contrast, Himmel has been lucid and generous with her thoughts about this venture, which appears to be a prime opportunity to use a vintage building as a gathering place for young and old alike and to meet the long-term needs of students with a new building.

Last year, Hickey persuaded the board to renovate the circa-1955 gym into classrooms for drafting and agricultural students.

Subsequently, Himmel suggested that the school district take the money set aside for that renovation, add a little to it, and build new classrooms, most likely north of where the high school's new cafeteria is being constructed. That would leave the gym, now used as a storage facility and for some ag classes, available for use as a community center.

The original estimate for converting the gym to classrooms was about $800,000. Himmel believes the district could construct new, free-standing classrooms for $200,000-$400,000 more.

She is hopeful the cost to transform the gym into a community center would be shared by the district, the County Commission and the city of Inverness. She also is confident there is state grant money available to help offset the costs to local government.

Himmel envisions the school district reserving the community center until late afternoons so students would have a safe, supervised gathering place after school until their parents came home from work. Sports and other organized activities would be offered.

At night and on weekends, Himmel proposes that the County Community Services office would oversee its own recreational programs and provide a venue for adult basketball leagues, dancing, etc.

It's a sensible and progressive idea. It preserves a part of the city's heritage and creates a much-needed community resource. At the same time, it gets the most use out of taxpayers' dollars without being wasteful and provides students with the modern classrooms they need for a fertile learning environment.

History will remember our elected leaders kindly for preserving places like this gym with the intent of maintaining the type of gathering places most of us enjoyed when we were young. Himmel's idea deserves the support of everyone, especially other School Board members and Hickey.

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