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Learning Gate has become Treegate

A "green" school is accused of cutting trees without permits as it expands.

By JARED LEONE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 14, 2007



Rachel Carson changed conventional wisdom about the environment when she published Silent Spring in 1962.

The environmental novel challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and their use of chemical pesticides.

Carson's message of environmental purity is a cornerstone for education at Learning Gate Community School.

The publicly funded school emphasizes environmentalism in its curriculum and its business practices. The school recently won the Tampa Bay Estuary Program's "Guardians of the Bay" contest for efforts to protect and restore Tampa Bay.

As a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, Learning Gate attained platinum-level green building status for the modular classrooms it is building as it seeks to grow to 500 students.

But expansion has not come without controversy, and regulators in several county offices have struggled with the school's contractors, led by the principal's former husband, Charles Girard.

This Tuesday, Learning Gate is due to meet with a special magistrate over allegations its landscapers illegally cut down trees. The school could have to pay $20,000 in fines as a result. The principal, Patti Girard, blamed the landscapers and said she was unaware of that hearing date.

Separately, regulators say the school's contractors have mishandled the expansion by building prematurely and failing to provide adequate sidewalks and driveways.

"They just kind of took off before the starter's gun and they have been running ahead of us the whole time," Craig Mahlman, manager of site development for the county, said.

The project is ambitious, and Charles Girard suggests he is being punished for going outside conventional building methods.

A certified general contractor since 1986, Girard is working on two 4,000-square-foot modular classrooms designed to meet green building standards for energy efficiency and sustainable building.

The buildings are constructed from wood from sustainable forests and steel from recycled sources. The modular buildings also use a soy-based foam insulation and will be partly powered by solar sources.

There will even be a computer system that will show the building's energy consumption, renewable energy output and offer information about the building's features.

Patti Girard said her board saw nothing improper about hiring her ex-husband. Nor did school district officials, said Jenna Hodgens, supervisor of nontraditional programs with the school board. Hodgens said the school will receive $3-million in tax dollars this school year, an amount that fluctuates depending on enrollment.

While there is no challenge to the relationship, county officials have mounted several challenges to Learning Gate's expansion-related activities.

First there was the matter of the trees. Twice in two months, the school and two landscape companies were cited for removing trees without a permit.

County officials were tipped off about work going on Oct. 7, 2006. Investigator Arnaldo Cintron went to the school and issued a cease-and-desist order to the workers removing trees. But not before four oak, four black cherry oak and 12 cherry laurel trees were cut down to stumps.

Most of the trees were legal to cut down if a permit was issued; however, one wasn't. The school and Cyclone Property Management were cited and had to put together a tree restoration plan.

Then, two months later, the school was cited again. This time, Debbie's Tree Service was the contractor and was cited for illegally removing six sabal palms and one laurel oak on Dec. 7, 2006.

Debbie Sacco said this was the first time she has been cited.

"Mr. Girard told me he had a permit," Sacco said. "But they were not issuing permits because he had prior issues with the county."

Charles Girard said the tree service is to blame.

"That is why you hire licensed contractors," Girard said.

Separate from the trees, county officials say Charles Girard began putting the modular buildings up before he had permits to do so.

And they say he mishandled the required road and sidewalk improvements.

Learning Gate built a partial sidewalk on Hanna Road, although regulations required them to build one around the entire perimeter of the school.

The school also has not built left- and right-turn lanes into the school parking lot, as the county requires.

Charles Girard plans to argue that the school shouldn't have to build the turn lanes or the complete sidewalk. He cites the Lutz Community Plan, a document that restricts development and is at odds with standard county development rules.

When the $1.12-million expansion is complete, he hopes to show that it is possible to construct "green" buildings as economically as standard construction.

This is an important lesson, he says, and the school principal agrees.

"I think that we are doing exactly what our mission statement says," Patti Girard said. "And we are going to do great things."

Jared Leone can be reached at jleone or 813 269-5314.

[Last modified December 13, 2007, 07:35:26]

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