Schools' power backup at risk

Three generators that protect district systems are about to become unavailable.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published September 6, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - The Pasco County School Board has a problem as it enters the heart of hurricane season.

And it's not whether it violated employees' rights by telling them they're on-call to work if a storm smashes the region. That hearing is scheduled for later this month.

Rather, the district stands to lose three giant generators that Withlacoochee River Electric has kept - free of charge - at the district headquarters, River Ridge High and Hudson High for the past decade. And it has no other utility backup to protect its records, or the patients who come to the River Ridge special needs shelter.

"I was in Charlotte County after Hurricane Charley, and I saw what happened" with the school district that couldn't get restarted because it lost all its records, said board member Allen Altman, who brought the issue to the board's attention Tuesday. "We need a system."

But the electric cooperative, which has been trying to work out contract details with the district for 18 months, is ready to pack up.

The company doesn't generally renew generator contracts these days, general manager Billy Brown said. So as the district has refused to pay a monthly fuel charge of about $1,100 since early 2006, and would not enter an agreement in a timely fashion, Withlacoochee River Electric decided to walk away.

"As of right now, it's our plan to pull those generators," Brown said Wednesday, reiterating the main point of a letter he sent to superintendent Heather Fiorentino on Aug. 14 - one day after a district employee sent an e-mail to the co-op again refusing to pay the fuel charge.

"We have spent considerable time, effort and money at the Land O'Lakes complex and have failed to satisfy you," Brown wrote in that letter. "We are no longer prepared to provide this subsidy to you and the generator will be removed from this complex in early October."

Renting similar generators would cost the district about $12,000 or more monthly, Altman said.

Fiorentino said she had been trying to broker a deal with Brown for some time, but she was unwilling to authorize a contract - or payment for the generator services - until she was convinced that the generators worked. Over several months, Fiorentino said, the cooperative could not demonstrate that the generators would protect district systems.

"On one day when they came out (to test the generators), they clicked it off and it did not go on again," she said.

She said Brown's Aug. 14 letter emerged after a series of miscommunications. When she tried to set up a meeting, Brown refused to come, she said. So Fiorentino turned it over to the board's attorney, Dennis Alfonso, whom she said had worked out the details for a contract to move ahead.

Fiorentino plans to bring a contract to the board next week.

Brown expressed surprise at her plans.

"I have no idea what she is going to bring to the School Board," he said. "We don't renew generator contracts anymore."

He acknowledged the district might have concerns about having generators to back up their systems. But that's the district's responsibility, not the co-op's, he added.

"I don't have anything to do with what they feel like they need as far as a backup," Brown said. "The superintendent has got the letter, and I'm sure the School Board has it. As far as I'm concerned, it's the School Board's problem to deal with now."

Which took board chairwoman Marge Whaley aback.

Whaley said she knew "next to nothing" about the issue until Altman mentioned it. And she didn't ask many questions after Fiorentino assured her that the contract was coming up next week. She planned to delve into the matter more closely before the board meets Tuesday.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.