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A Times Editorial

Take a lesson from dealing with new schools


© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2002

One of the most challenging tasks a school district faces is building a new school.

First, there is the problem that typically precipitates the project -- overcrowding at other schools. Next is the matter of money. Districts rarely can build a school on their own, which means persuading the state to cough up the cash. That was nearly impossible in Florida even before Amendment 9 forced every district in the state to start groveling for bucks.

After the what and the how comes the where. Even in a sprawling county like Citrus, tracts large enough to accommodate a school are becoming scarce. And, as any Realtor will tell you, the three most important points to consider are location, location, location. The new school must be in a place that makes sense.

The Citrus school district faces these headaches on at least two fronts as it seeks sites for a new high school and a permanent place for the Renaissance Center, the school for disruptive middle and high school students. In both instances, it needs to balance the district's need for space with the concerns of the schools' new neighbors.

It's an unenviable but essential task, one that calls for understanding and compromise on both sides.

The district handled the situation well earlier this year when it floated the idea of building a new high school in Beverly Hills. Many residents pointed out some serious problems with the location, and the idea was withdrawn. The district now is leaning toward building it in Citrus Springs, where the community has shown keen interest in having a high school to complement its elementary and middle schools.

That marriage of community need and support is lacking, however, in the search for a new Renaissance Center location.

After many months of weighing potential sites, the district is focusing on a 22-acre piece of property south of State Road 44 and east of County Road 491. It abuts the county jail, the Withlacoochee State Forest and -- here's the rub -- a small residential neighborhood.

Led by Donna Jean De Simone, several of the neighbors have complained to the School Board about the site selection. The board, prudently, has delayed a decision.

The major problem raised is safety, both for the residents and the students. De Simone told the board that hunters use the woods nearby, which could theoretically place the students in danger from stray shots.

That concern is easy to address. The firearm portion of the deer hunting seasons in the Citrus tract of the state forest are short and strictly enforced. To further protect the students, officials could look into a buffer zone between the wildlife management areas of the forest and the school, similar to what exists between hunting areas and the forest's campgrounds.

The greater safety concerns involve the neighbors, who already have the county jail and Cypress Creek, a state facility for juvenile offenders, in their back yards. The residents are understandably leery about adding to that mix the district's sole center for students with troubling behavioral problems.

While it's important to note that the Renaissance Center is not a detention facility and its students are not inmates, such distinctions are of no great comfort to many residents. De Simone gave the School Board 700 signatures of people who opposed the site and who said they were not aware of the district's plans.

By delaying the purchasing decision, the board showed that it is taking those complaints seriously. Maybe they've learned from the County Commission's disastrous adventure with the Halls River Retreat controversy about the importance of listening to residents. The residents, however, have certain obligations as well. Chief among them is being informed about major projects planned for your back yard.

The Renaissance search has hardly been a secret. The district has talked about this site since last spring and it has been the topic of several board meetings and numerous newspaper reports. If so many affected citizens truly were unaware of this slow-moving process, perhaps they need to pay closer attention to what is happening around them.

The board is not required to notify adjacent property owners of pending land purchases, although adding such a step to its policies might head off similar problems when the district looks for sites for new buildings.

Property owners must make sure they stay informed as well. Residents' involvement in these decisions is important, but so is timing. These questions about the Renaissance Center site could have been raised and answered months ago.

Better communication will be essential as the county grows, meaning more students and less land for schools, and the impacts of Amendment 9 come home to roost. The district and board must have a workable plan to alert residents of their intentions and to deal with community concerns because they are likely to get a lot of practice in the coming years.

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