Gifted Rules Vary By Region

BROOKSVILLE – As officials at the Hernando County School District publicize free screening sessions to identify more local children for the county’s new gifted center, at least one parent is crying foul.

With her 11-year-old daughter accepted to the district’s centralized gifted center – set to open this fall at Explorer K-8 off Northcliffe Boulevard – Spring Hill resident Colleen Tracy is now in a tough position.

Her younger daughter, a 10-year-old whose teacher initially recommended gifted testing based on high academic performance, missed the IQ cutoff for the program by one point.

Since Tracy wanted her children to attend the same school, she inquired about the government’s adequate yearly progress (AYP) choice program, which gives parents at Title I schools that have not met AYP for two years – such as Spring Hill Elementary – the option of choosing to send their children to a different school.

But she has now learned that her daughter’s high score on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is too high to get her accepted to the school through the choice program, which offers first priority to students who performed poorly on the test.

“First, they’re telling us she can’t go to Explorer because she’s not intelligent enough, but yet she’s too intelligent for the choice program,” Tracy said. “It’s a crying shame. I can understand if the program was full, but they’re looking for more students for this gifted program – and she only missed the (cutoff) by one point.”

A larger issue is that her child would actually be considered gifted in many other counties in Florida, due to differences in minimum IQ score required by each district’s “Plan B,” or a socioeconomic policy meant to assist members of various subgroups.

While an average IQ is thought to be in the range of 85 to 115, a student is defined as “gifted” across the state if he or she scores at least two standard deviations above the mean IQ score of 130 (minus the standard “error of measurement” of three points) and meets at least one characteristic of a gifted student on the state’s standard scale or checklist.

In Hernando County, a student can qualify for Plan B if they have a mean IQ score of 120 and are a member of an underrepresented group – such as a low socioeconomic level or if English is not their first language.

Tracy’s daughter scored a 119, meaning she would have been considered gifted in Florida counties such as Hillsborough, Pasco, Miami-Dade and Broward, where the minimum IQ score for Plan B is 115, in addition to other district-directed characteristics.

She also would have made the cut in Alachua County, where the IQ cutoff for Plan B is 118. More than 14 percent of the district’s children have been identified as gifted.

“I don’t understand how kids in one county can be accepted if they have a score of 115, but kids in another county won’t be accepted unless they have a 130,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s the same testing and the same state.”

Local officials acknowledged that plans vary by counties, but said their hands are tied.

Cathy Dofka, the district’s director of Exceptional Student Education, explained that all districts’ Plan Bs were developed by each district more than a decade ago, based on counties’ socioeconomic conditions and approved by the state.

“We have to go by guidelines that were developed before I ever became director,” she said. “The state can come up with different criteria, but so far, they have not given us any direction to change our Plan Bs.”

There are even larger discrepancies between states, with some states not even requiring IQ score as an identifying factor. While Florida has kept its standard high by labeling its program as “gifted,” other states have a program known as “gifted and talented,” in which teacher recommendation – not IQ – is the determining factor.

Alabama is one such state, where nearly 23 percent of its students were identified as “gifted and talented” in 2004-05. Current data was not available at press time.

However, while initial identifying requirements may vary by region, any student who has been tested in a previous school district and considered gifted (or gifted and talented) is automatically eligible for Hernando’s gifted services. Those moving to the area do not have to meet local standards to be accepted to the program.

Students receiving gifted services bring in $2,100 in additional state funding per child for the district.

Some children who have been enrolled in the gifted program at other district schools have opted not to transfer to the new center, while others are undecided. The new center is their only option for continuing to receive gifted services.

Tracy said her youngest daughter’s teacher at Spring Hill Elementary – who initially recommended having her tested – is transferring to Explorer as a gifted teacher in the fall and believes her daughter is capable of handling the higher-order curriculum.

“Her teacher keeps saying, ‘Let me give her a try,'” Tracy said.

However, unless the 120 standard is changed, local officials said they do not have the power to make exceptions to the rule.

“As much as I’d like to help her, I’m not allowed to take a sibling,” said Explorer’s principal, Dominick Ferello. “(However), I know there’s been some talk locally about trying to get the standard changed.”

Last year, the district reported 2.5 percent of its 22,708 students as gifted. The current state average is 4.9.

Now, hundreds of children who scored high marks on standardized tests have been screened for the new gifted program, with two free screening sessions set to take place Tuesday and Wednesday for local parents who want their children screened.

Ferello said the school could actually face overcrowding issues in coming years.

Explorer, built for 2,100 students, is already at more than 1,760 students with growing enrollment for both the gifted program and general education classes. New students include those moving to the area from other states and those leaving local private schools to attend the new school, Ferello said.

“I’m thrilled that the gifted center is here,” he said. “But if we get more gifted students and need to go beyond the rooms designated for the program, we’ll have to go back to the school board and figure out what to do.”

Friday, there were about 215 students enrolled in the school’s gifted program. Ferello predicted that there may be at least 275 by the time school starts.

Though some parents have questioned the methodology used to determine the school’s zoning – in which some families who live near Explorer are zoned for other nearby schools – officials say boundaries were drawn according to the areas near the school that are most heavily-populated with children.

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or lbrown@hernandotoday.com.

Mermaid Camp Is A Fantasy Come True

WEEKI WACHEE –
Ann Wallace was not going to take no for an answer.

Years ago, her daughter learned of a place in Florida that has mermaids. When she discovered there was a two-day camp, her heart was set on going. She was not about to be convinced otherwise.

Madison Wallace is 17 years old. She is old enough to legally drive and already has begun looking at colleges.

Most of her peers last weekend were still in elementary school. The Mermaid Camp – held mostly every weekend during the summer at Weeki Wachee Springs – has an age limit. No one younger than 7 and no one older than 14 can be admitted.

“I said, ‘Please let her come,'” recalled Ann Wallace. “This is her dream.”

An exception was made.

When she was a young girl, Madison Wallace would put a ring around her feet and swim with her legs together. It was her way of imitating the way mermaids move in the water. She even taught her friends how to do it, her mother said.

If that wasn’t enough, Wallace shares the same name – Madison – as Darryl Hannah’s character in “Splash.” It seemed there were some outside forces at work that kept augmenting her fascination with mermaids.

On Saturday, Wallace was seated on the floor inside the mermaid villa rubbing glitter on her bare legs. Her younger sister, Meredith, 14, emerged out of the locker room and joined her.

The sisters live in Hartsville, S.C. They made a special trip 500 miles south just for the camp. They spent most of the week with their family in Clearwater.

“We came down here for this, but we thought we’d make it a week-long vacation,” Wallace said.

The sisters laughed as they talked about the elder’s long-time interest in mermaids. Meredith Wallace didn’t want her sister to be alone among a group of kids, so their mother made a second reservation. Ann Wallace joked it was a way for the younger daughter to attend two camps this summer instead of one, which is normally the limit.

“I think she felt pity for me actually,” Madison Wallace said of her sister.

Meredith Wallace wants to make it known to everyone she isn’t the girly type. She doesn’t share her sister’s love for mermaids or anything fantastical.

“I’m into athletics,” she said. “Basketball, tennis …”

As she was about to find out, the amount of swimming involved in being a mermaid would tire mostly any athlete.

This year, 14 camps were included on the schedule – two in April, three in May, three in June, four in July and two in August. All of the slots were filled. Next year’s dates will be released in February.

There is a maximum of nine participants for each camp. Mermaid Lauren Dobson, who is working her second summer at Weeki Wachee, was the supervisor.

She was responsible for nine girls. She had to teach them a variety of balletic moves – including the dolphin, pinwheel, pikes and side leaps. She showed them how to put on their makeup and wear their wraps over their swimsuits. When one girl discovered she hadn’t packed a suit, she wasted no time contacting her mother.

She even ordered lunches for the campers.

Dobson volunteered to run the camp after last year’s mermaid accepted a job elsewhere. Her bosses knew she would be perfect for it. The 19-year-old college student is a natural around kids.

Secondly, she was a product of the camp herself.

Dobson’s mother is a former mermaid. When her daughter was 11 years old, she enrolled her in the camp. It paid dividends six years later when she applied for a mermaid job while still a senior in high school.

Hernando Today was there to cover her tryout. She was the only one hired out of the seven who auditioned.

“While I was auditioning, it all came back to me,” Dobson said. “I remembered how to do the pinwheel. I hadn’t done it in six years.

“I love doing this because it’s so much fun,” she continued. “I was there. I know how they look up to us.”

Then she looked over her shoulder to make sure no one was around.

“Sometimes, I wonder if they should,” she joked.

The camp runs for eight hours each day. At the end, the students give a performance for their families, who watch from the underwater theater.

Ann Wallace arrived to pick up her daughters Saturday. That was when she disclosed her daughter’s mania with mermaids. She believed she was destined to become one.

As Madison Wallace prepares for college, she is considering moving to Florida. She already knows what she’d like to do during her summer vacations. She told her mother she either wants to work at Disney World – or at Weeki Wachee Springs.

She took a major step last weekend. Maybe she won’t be the only one in the family to do so.

A few moments later, she emerged out from the villa and walked toward her mother. She was still soaking wet and wrapped in a towel.

“It was fun,” she said to the reporter standing a few feet away.

A few seconds later came her sister. Her eyes were open a little wider.

“It was awesome!” she said.

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or wholt@hernandotoday.com.

Area Deaths

Salvatore Cannova, 95, of Brooksville, died Monday, July 7 at his home in Brooksville.
Mr. Cannova was born was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and came to this area seven years ago from Commack, Long Island, N.Y.
He was a shoemaker and Catholic by faith.
Survivors include a son, Samuel of Spring Hill; a daughter, Judy DeSola of Brooksville; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Arrangements by Downing Funeral Home and Cremation Services, Spring Hill.

Dorine M. Rossano, 74, of Spring Hill, died Wednesday, July 2 at Oak Hill Hospital.
She was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and came to this area 10 years ago from Holbrook, N.Y. She was a homemaker who loved animals and contributed to the Humane Society.
Survivors include a brother, Eugene May, of Hutchinson Island, Fla.; three nieces, Dorine J. (Albert) Tudisco, of West Hampton, N.Y.; Kathleen (Timothy) Blewett, of Holbrook, N.Y.; Kelly Ann May; a nephew, Robert May; three great nieces and three great nephews.
Arrangements by Turner Funeral Homes, Spring Hill Chapel.

Elizabeth Fleming, 35, of Brooksville, died Thursday, July 3.
She was born in Burlington VT and moved here in 1977. She graduated from Central High School, and worked at Spring Hill Regional Hospital.
Survivors include her mother and father, Michael and Majorie Fleming, of Weeki Wachee; daughter; Courtney Hudanish, of Masaryktown.
Arrangements by Brewer & Sons.

Vincenza Forestieri, 88, of Spring Hill, died Sunday, July 6.
Born in Manhattan, N.Y., she came to this area 21 years ago from Port Jefferson, N.Y. She was a homemaker.
Survivors include her daughters, Lucille Carnevale, of Ridge, N.Y., Natalie Hughes, of New Port Richey, Fla., and Joan Caramanica, of Spring Hill; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Arrangements by Merritt Funeral Home, Spring Hill Chapel.

William J. Hanney, 76, of Spring Hill, died Friday, July 4, at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
Born in Holbrook, Mass., Mr. Hanney moved to Florida in 1978 from Pennsylvania and worked as a construction supervisor for Envirotech Corp. He fought in Korea for the U.S. Army, was a lifetime member of the VFW and a Catholic by faith.
He is survived by a wife, Mary Hanney of Spring Hill.
Arrangements by Grace Memorial Gardens and Funeral Home, Hudson

Levi R. Thomas, 93, of Brooksville, died Sunday, July 6. He was born in Norwalk, Ohio, a Mason and he loved to hunt.
He is survived by one son, Gary, of Brooksville; several grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews.
Arrangements by Turner Funeral Homes, Brooksville chapel

Dupre Lands HR Job In Davie

BROOKSVILLE – Three months after her forced resignation and a lucrative financial separation package, former human resources director Barbara Dupre has landed a new job.

She’s the new HR director in Davie, a suburb of Miami, where she is in charge of six department staffers.

On April 24, Dupre was forced to resign her position as human resources director after a scathing audit and outside legal review uncovered several questionable management methods in her department.

The review said there was a lack of trust and confidence in Dupre at every level of the agency and cited documentation and corroboration of grounds for employee discontent with her performance.

Nevertheless, mainly because previous county administrators never documented those deficiencies on her performance evaluations and government officials were skittish that Dupre might sue, the county gave her a three-month severance package worth $24,900. Add in accrued sick leave, vacation leave and paid time off days, and Dupre left the county with another $15,971 for a grand total of $40,871.

Dupre’s departure was followed 15 days later by the firing of Emergency Management Director Tom Leto, who received a cash-out from the county totaling $9,858 for accrued sick, vacation and PTO hours.

Dupre did not return repeated phone calls to Hernando Today.

Davie Town Administrator Gary Shimun also did not return phone calls inquiring whether he knew about Dupre’s stormy tenure in Hernando County when he hired her.

When she left, Dupre was making $92,487, more than double what she was making after Hernando County hired her in 1998 for $45,182. Part of her boost in pay was because she got a master’s degree, courtesy of the county’s tuition reimbursement program.

At Davie, the salary range for the HR position is between $78,437 and $105,113. HR officials there Thursday did not say where Dupre fell in that range.

Davie’s population is about 90,000, compared to more than 166,000 for Hernando County. It is located in central Broward County, is mostly rural and home to a sizable equestrian community.

The Miami Dolphins train at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

With a median household income of $55,125 (in 2005), Davie is more affluent than Hernando County, with a median of $40,347 (2006 data).

Meanwhile, Hernando County commissioners, hoping to avoid many of the same kinds of problems it got into with Dupre, is treading very carefully as it seeks a new human resources director.

This week, commissioners voted unanimously to revise the job description. Among the requirements, County Administrator David Hamilton said he is looking for someone who can work “as a leadership team member.”

In the revised job description, the job will pay $69,000 to $109,000 – a range that commissioners believe is appropriate for such a high-ranking position.

The county hopes to have someone on board by September.

Just days after Dupre resigned here, Hamilton formed two committees: one charged with finding a permanent replacement for Dupre and revising the job description of the position.

The second committee has a broader focus – to look into the deeper problems that have been allowed to fester over the years in the HR department. That committee is looking into the management deficiencies identified by an outside legal firm and allow the county to “start rebuilding policies and practices” of HR.

Jerry Haines, the department’s HR workers’ compensation and safety coordinator, has been working as interim director while the county searches for a replacement.

Haines told Hernando Today recently that morale remains high in his department during this period of uncertainty.

Reporter Michael D. Bates can be reached at 352-544-5290 or mbates@hernandotoday.com.

Germany Trip Leads To Mix-Up

BROOKSVILLE –
BROOKSVILLE – What’s the difference between a school board-sanctioned field trip and students taking a vacation?

One means the school district could be held responsible if something goes wrong – but sometimes, things aren’t what they seem.

Friday, July 4, a group of Hernando County high school students will depart for a trip to Sandhausen, Germany, where they will spend 17 days living with German families and several days going to school alongside German students.

They will be reunited with the 22 students who stayed with their families in January of this year and shadowed them at Hernando County schools.

While the cultural exchange has become an annual tradition for local students, there’s one difference this year: For the first time, students signed paperwork acknowledging that the trip is not a school board-sanctioned trip.

“It doesn’t faze me one way or another, but I would like to see it endorsed by the district,” said Brooksville resident Cindy Wolaver, whose 16-year-old son is going on the trip.

“I’m just concerned that the German students may not feel as comfortable coming (here),” she added. “They’re sending their children halfway around the world to attend our schools and learn about our community. If it’s not endorsed by our schools, they might seek a district that does.”

Wolaver’s daughter, 20, is also going on the trip as a junior chaperone.

But while the students’ trip to Germany passed through the board in 2003, it has since only been assumed to be sanctioned due to a misunderstanding in the proposal’s language.

It has not been officially endorsed by the school board since then.

“I guess it was my fault,” said Central High German teacher Ron Schildbach, who has coordinated the program since 2000. “Since we created it as a (reoccurring) trip, we didn’t realize it had to be approved every year.”

The trip was initially placed on the agenda for the June school board meeting, but was removed because the students will not be missing any school, said director of student services Jim Knight.

The students were then required to sign release forms stating that they are essentially a group of people traveling together, and not involved with the district in any way.

“They’re basically going as private citizens over there,” Wolaver said.

However, Schildbach said he is preparing an agenda item for an upcoming meeting to gain approval for the exchange program to become a reoccurring trip.

Just as the district has put up $2,500 for cultural activities during the German students’ exchange, the German school district has put up an equal amount of funding – if not more – for activities for Hernando County’s students when they visit Germany, Schildbach said.

“They’ve taken us to Austria and the Swiss Alps,” he said, noting that the only expense to local students is their plane ticket.

The students have either raised the money themselves or their parents have paid it.

Finance director Deborah Bruggink confirmed that there was a $2,500 allotment in the 2007-08 budget for cultural activities during the German students’ visit, but is not in the budget for 2008-09.

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or lbrown@hernandotoday.com.

Spring Hill: Last Unbeaten

WESLEY CHAPEL –
WESLEY CHAPEL – Spring Hill continued to impress Friday night, maintaining its unblemished record in the Seniors Boys (age 14) All-Stars District 6 Tournament Friday night at Wesley Chapel District Park.

Spring Hill downed Hernando, 13-3 in six innings, in a meeting of two county teams who were the last undefeated clubs in the seven-team double-elimination tournament.

Spring Hill (3-0) had defeated Wildwood the night before, 12-1 in five innings, after topping Sumter on Wednesday, 8-6. On Thursday Hernando (1-1) downed Oak Griner, 9-3, in its tournament opener.

“If we get going, we’re going to be dangerous,” Spring Hill Head Coach Mike Sollazzo said. “If we get it going we’re going to be tough to beat.

“I really don’t think we’re going full steam. I think the kids are still thinking they’re great. And they are good. But every game we’ve started slow. We’ve got to pick it up a little.”

Two-out rally

After Hernando recorded two quick outs in the top of the first, Spring Hill pieced together a rally to go ahead 2-0.

Julian Perez’s infield single to third preceded a solid double to left-center off the bat of Louis Colaiacomo. Ian Townsend followed by lining a RBI single to right.

Colaiacomo came across on a wild pitch, though Townsend was tagged out trying to sneak home on the same play.

Hernando got one back in the bottom half when Brandon Gemmiti scored on a two-out wild pitch. However, Perez scored on Townsend’s sacrifice fly in the third to restore the two-run advantage.

Kyle Jensen, pinch running for Cody Singer, came in on a wild pitch in the bottom of the third to cut it back to one.

In Spring Hill’s half of the fourth, Jon Gaffney doubled to left leading off and scored on Joey Asquith’s single that fell in front of the diving centerfielder.

J.T. Simpson’s infield single deep in the hole to shortstop drove in Anthony Fiocca, who walked, to make it 5-2.

With the bases still loaded, none out and the middle of the order coming up, Hernando pitcher Tyler Bammert wiggled out of further trouble with a strikeout, a force at home and a groundout.

Thomas Tambasco added a solo leadoff home run to left field in the top of the sixth.

Perez plated another on a single up the middle, Townsend notched his third RBI on a double to right, Gaffney had a RBI groundout and Townsend scored on a wild pitch.

Spring Hill would eventually send 12 batters to the plate, going in front by double figures on Simpson’s three-run double to left-center.

Hernando scratched across a run in the bottom of the inning as Matt Singer singled and scored on an error, but couldn’t get a runner home from third with two outs to avoid the mercy rule.

“Bammert pitched a heck of a game for Hernando,” Sollazzo said. “He’s definitely maturing. I’d love to have him on my team.

“The kids did peck away. We gave them their two runs (in the first). They have a good team. I’m a little deeper and basically that’s what won it.”

The win advanced Spring Hill to a game Saturday against Sumter, while Hernando had an elimination game with Oak Griner.

“It was a good ballgame, a tough ballgame,” Hernando Head Coach Bubba Patterson said. “It’s just a matter of a hit there, I don’t think we made any errors, they were just dropping. Give Spring Hill credit. That’s a good team. A lot of good talent on that team.

“I think Tyler Bammert did well. It was a close ballgame. I told the boys some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you. Today the bear got us.”

Sports writer Chris Bernhardt Jr. can be reached at (352) 544-5288 or cbernhardt@hernandotoday.com.

Taking A Shot At 44

BROOKSVILLE – Joe Puglia says he sees some fundamental similarities between serving in the state legislature and flying a jumbo jet.

Both jobs require thinking ahead, said Puglia, a 41-year-old Brooksville resident who flew commercial airliners for 10 years.

“You don’t want to be in the back of the plane with bad weather ahead in Tampa and me in the cockpit without a plan,” Puglia said.

State lawmakers, he contends, have failed to plan for what Puglia calls “the perfect storm” of high insurance rates, high gas prices and a tumultuous economy.

Now Puglia wants to see what he can do to, as he puts it, “get the plane out of the dive.”

He’s challenging state Rep. Rob Schenck for the District 44 seat. The district includes all of Hernando and parts of Pasco and Sumter counties.

Puglia is a former New York City Police officer and is now the owner of Big Red Carting, a solid waste company in Brooksville. He says his diverse background and acute awareness of the plight of everyday Floridians help qualify him as a candidate.

He was motivated to run by state and local headlines and by the stories of his customers who can’t pay their bills, and by what he said has been an inadequate response by the state Legislature.

Puglia called Amendment 1 a “knee-jerk reaction” that will hurt the state more than it helped taxpayers. Locally, Sheriff Richard Nugent is dealing with a million dollar shortfall and school Superintendent Wayne Alexander with a $3.3 million deficit, said Puglia, who is married and has three children ages 10, 12 and 17. All three attend public schools in the county.

“Would I have rather paid another $100 in my property taxes and not have these gentlemen face these issues? Absolutely,” he said.

Puglia said he would work hard to attract industry to Hernando and would use the Hernando County airport and the nearby rail line, which he called “a tremendous asset,” as an attractor. He said he’s already approached UPS about expanding operations here.

He opposes expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, contending that oil companies should be exploring some 8 million acres already open to them.

And he vows to take a tough stance against insurance companies who have set up separate corporations in Florida so their national operations can’t be tapped to pay claims.

“If you’re going to do business in this state, it needs to be under one umbrella,” he said.

He expressed frustration that the Legislature broke its promise to hold education funding harmless. He said the state’s A-Plus plan and the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test need to be overhauled, and that politicians should seek input from teachers, principals and superintendents to help craft a new way to gauge student progress.

A native of Queens, N.Y., Puglia’s parents owned a photography studio. He attended some college classes in Long Island before deciding on a police career. He worked as a patrol officer and then as helicopter pilot in the department before joining United Airlines in 1995.

He flew domestic and international routes, and spent two years as a flight manager overseeing the hiring of new pilots. He moved to Hernando County in 1999, and left United in 2005.

In 2003, he founded Big Red Carting. The company provides waste hauling for commercial and residential customers.

He said he has the diplomatic dexterity to cross party lines when it’s best for constituents. “You couldn’t be a captain at a major airline and survive without good people skills,” he said.

Schenck served as a Hernando County commissioner before his election to the House in 2006. Puglia didn’t have harsh criticism for the incumbent.

“He’s a person who I’m sure who has put his best foot forward,” he said, “but sometimes you have to put a different driver in the seat.”

For his part, Schenck said he worked with his fellow lawmakers to cut the budget and provide tax relief to Florida residents.

“I think it’s important to keep people in office that are going to protect the wallets of taxpayers, especially in these sorts of economic times,” Schenck said.

He pointed to several local projects included in this year’s budget despite lean times, such as $14 million for expansion and renovations to the Hernando County Health Department.

“As my tenure in the Legislature continues, there will be more of those successes,” he said.

There is no other Democrat or Republican in the race, so Puglia and Schenck are headed straight to the general election.

Schenck won by just 2 percent in 2006. But Puglia will face an extra challenge with the presence of a third party candidate.

Sarah Roman, 21, of New Port Richey is running on the Green Party ticket. The party bases its platform on environmentally-friendly policy and traditionally pulls some Democratic voters.

Roman did not return calls seeking comment.

County Housing Authority Runs Afoul Of HUD

BROOKSVILLE – Hernando County Housing Authority board members learned this week that the authority has been considered “troubled” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the last two years.

The designation came for failing to keep the department abreast of how the authority is responding to deficiencies found three years ago in its Section 8 housing voucher program, housing board member Anna Liisa Covell was told by a HUD official Monday.

“I wasn’t very happy when I found out,” Covell said Wednesday.

Covell said the issue came up during a lengthy conversation with John Niesz, director of public housing in HUD’s Jacksonville office. She’d actually called Niesz to get direction on how to proceed with folding the Brooksville Housing Authority, itself deemed troubled by HUD, into the county authority.

Covell said Niesz told her that such a merger would be a drawn-out process – and one further complicated by the county authority’s troubled status.

Covell brought up the issue at the Brooksville Housing Authority board meeting Tuesday night. Members of the county board, including Paul Sullivan, Beth Garman and Rose Atkins, attended to discuss the possibilities of a merger. All three said they were unaware of the troubled designation, Covell said.

Don Singer, the county authority’s executive director who also attended the meeting, told his board members that his office turned in its responses to HUD using the wrong paperwork, Sullivan said. Singer said HUD sent the information back and apparently marked it as never arriving.

Singer did not return a call seeking comment.

The Hernando authority was given a “corrective action plan” to address the deficiencies, Karen Jackson Sims, field office director in HUD’s Tampa office, said in an e-mail response Wednesday to Hernando Today.

HUD staffers are in Brooksville this week to “determine whether sufficient improvements have been implemented under the (plan) to warrant removal of the ‘troubled’ designation,” Jackson Sims said.

Sullivan said the county board will discuss the issue at its own board meeting next Wednesday.

“Don has some more explaining to do,” Sullivan said.

Each year, HUD gauges how well the county authority is administering its Section 8 housing program. As part of the Section 8 Management Assessment Program Certification, or SEMAP, HUD grades the authority in 14 categories.

Authorities that earn a score of 60 percent or less are deemed troubled. The county authority earned an overall score of 82 percent for its 2005 assessment, according to a letter from Niesz to Singer dated Jan. 31, 2006.

But in three categories, the county authority received no points. The categories dealt with how well the authority expands housing opportunities and does annual inspections on the quality of its housing. The authority was to send HUD “a written report describing the corrective actions taken within 45 calendar days” of receipt of the letter, Niesz wrote. The authority was given a troubled designation for not responding in a timely manner, Covell said Niesz told her Monday.

On Wednesday, both Covell and Sullivan said the problem does not appear to be a major one if the information was in fact submitted. Sullivan said he was bothered by the way HUD labels an agency as “troubled” for minor infractions.

But both Covell and Sullivan said they were concerned that Singer hadn’t kept them abreast of the situation. Covell recalls the deficiencies coming up in early 2006, but not after that, and at least three board members said they weren’t aware of the troubled designation.

“We were told these were being taken care of,” Covell said. She said Niesz told her Monday that Singer should have given the board status reports on how he was correcting the deficiencies.

Covell said she still felt “just as responsible” as a board member for not following up with Singer about the deficiencies.

Meanwhile, Covell and Sullivan said they remain firm in their stance that there should be one housing authority in the county – but that the Brooksville Housing Authority must take care of its problems before the county authority will consider some form of merger. Covell said her conversation with Niesz reaffirmed that the Brooksville authority has to fix its financial woes and resolve a lawsuit by Brooksville electrical contractor Jim Lane, who is seeking payment for work he did at the authority’s Summit Villas apartment complex. Both said they were frustrated by an apparent lack of progress on those fronts.

Brooksville housing board Vice-chairman Jim Brooks said the authority is “in good working order and has more than enough money to pay the bills,” and will be submitting information this week to the county authority to show that.

It will be up to the courts to decide the Lane lawsuit, Brooks said. Brenda Williams, a consultant hired by HUD and working as interim executive director at the Brooksville authority, has another 60 days on her contract.

Brooks said he hopes the two boards can come to a solution before then so the authority does not have to hire an executive director, which he said would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Reporter Tony Marrero can be reached at 352-544-5286 or lmarrero@hernandotoday.com.

Losing Jobs Tough For Local Teachers

BROOKSVILLE – Spring Hill resident Tiffany Jansen knows what it’s like to worry.

A fifth-grade teacher at Eastside Elementary School in Brooksville, Jansen, 27, is about to get married in four weeks. But instead of focusing on her wedding, she’s job searching.

Jansen is one of 93 teachers on an annual contract – or those who have been with the district three years or less – in the Hernando County School District who has been “nonreappointed,” or told she does not have a job next year.

The only problem is, school officials couldn’t tell them why.

By Florida law, neither district officials nor administrators can comment or give rationale for their nonreappointment decisions, a move meant to deter lawsuits.

And it’s frustrating, Jansen said.

She said she has had positive evaluations for the past two years that she has been at Eastside and has no idea why she was issued a pink slip.

“It’s tough,” she said. “You go to work every day, you’re on time, you do your job, you’ve never gotten reprimanded or written up – and then you lose your job.”

Jansen initially obtained a letter on April 4 stating that she was being reappointed, but obtained another letter three weeks later stating the opposite.

Like many other teachers in similar situations, Jansen said she has been checking local employment Web sites daily for job openings. Nonreappointed teachers are free to apply for other jobs within the district, and many obtain jobs at other district schools.

Problem is, there aren’t any current elementary teaching positions open in Hernando County, and Jansen isn’t certified to teach Exceptional Student Education or middle and high school, she said.

Released to the public last Friday, the list of nonreappointed district employees totals 250. However, that number includes paraprofessionals, cafeteria aids and bus drivers, some of whose positions are being eliminated as part of the district’s three-year reduction plan.

Others are retiring, resigning or switching schools. Of the teachers, 18 are retiring and 24 are resigning, often meaning that they have plans to move elsewhere with their families.

Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo said that many of the teachers being non-reappointed have had excellent evaluations and test scores, and said there could be any number of reasons for the administrative decision.

“It could be for a variety of things,” he said. “It often comes down to a simple human decision of ‘Do I or do I not want this person?’ It leaves some hard questions to be answered about ‘why.’ And they’re not going to be answered (because of the) law.”

Due to the opening of Explorer K-8 in the fall, the new, 2,100-student school off Northcliffe Boulevard in Spring Hill, teachers at schools particularly affected by downsizing and rezoning – such as J.D. Floyd K-8 and Spring Hill Elementary School, both in Spring Hill – were encouraged to apply at Explorer K-8.

But not all were hired there. Some were left without jobs, and several have expressed outrage at the way the “pressured encouragement” to apply at Explorer was presented to them.

This year, union and district officials found new positions at other schools for 42 teachers who had been reappointed, but whose positions were being eliminated.

Vitalo said it was up to individual principals to grant teachers district reappointment status, even if they didn’t have enough openings at their school – a fact that may not have been understood by all principals.

“As far as we know, there was no directive from the district office to (release anyone),” he said. “There was a shifting in positions because there’s been a shifting of the student population.”

It also happens every year. In 2006, 132 annual teachers were released, and 82 in 2007.

Vitalo said many of the teachers not reappointed this year are currently applying for other jobs within the district or in Pasco County.

By fall, the district is expecting to fill about 100 teaching openings due to attrition and reallocation to different areas, such as added art and music teacher positions.

“Most of them have been going through the system, and some have already been offered jobs,” Vitalo said. “They’re being picked up really quick. A lot of schools want to fill their positions before school gets out for the summer.”

But he said he empathizes with the toughest question on job applications: The one asking if the applicant has ever been released from a job.

“It’s kind of tough to answer that question when you don’t know why,” Vitalo said.

Non-reappointed teachers:

Hernando High School:

Patricia Colbert

Brian Flanigan

Maira Garcia

Maritza James

Marion Jones

Abigail Smith

Amanda Taylor

Sherylene Barnes

Brooksville Elementary School:

Kimberly Henry

Sherri Stevens

Westside Elementary School:

Jeanette Atwell

Jennifer Gallagher

Steven Jones

Eastside Elementary School:

Tiffani Holland

Tiffany Jansen

Michelle Peavy

Richard Robertson

Arlene Tannascoli

Julie Urban

Springstead High School:

Randall Kloko

Carol Long

Dennis Lewis

Melissa Roman

Maguerita Tolbert

Spring Hill Elementary School:

Cindy Armstrong

Laura Barry

Denise Ciccio

Mary Curtis

Caroline Hamilton

Geraldine Lapniewski

Angela Thompson

Powell Middle School:

Bridget Giglio

J.D. Floyd K-8:

Mandy Beck

Annmarie Cagnina

Cathy Farrell

Jennifer Kramer

Matthew Littmann

Kelli Mapes

Dayna Million

Donna Nugent

Melanie Polk

Tamara Sargent

Melanie Polk

Tamara Sargent

Clifford Teachout

Kare Whitney-O’beid

Cynthia Williams

Patricia Williams

Jennifer Stewart

Parrott Middle School:

Teresa Hatley

Jonathan Jacobellis

George Kenney

Josandra Maner

Kenneth Pascascio

Rita Southern

Donna Thompson

Central High School:

Kevin Ballard

John Larry

Andrew Smith

Nicole Wittman

Pine Grove Elementary School:

Debra Buckley

Meghan Chapin

Marisa Duval

Ernest Froman

Barbara LeBlanc

Marybeth Longcoy

Kara Sizemore

Michael Storey

West Hernando Middle School:

Kristen Tomczak

Julio Torres

Elizabeth Whitaker

Moton Elementary School:

Laura Olds

Suncoast Elementary School:

Jacquelyn Alessio

Jessica Buckmaster

Michelle Dea

Kimberly Kolb

Nature Coast Technical

High School:

Jo Caraballo-Rivera

Tina Cavallino

Christopher Clifford

Kevin Cullen

David Feinberg

Charles Giarratana

Alfred Holmes

Stephen Iavarone

Jillian McGuiness

Carol Parzik

Danielle Pugh

Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics:

Monica Bennett

Typson Ellis

Kallie Hilyard

Kyra Leonard

Gregory Odachowski

Angelina Somaroo

Andrew Zipperer

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or lbrown@hernandotoday.com.

Tactical Supply Is Brooksville’s New Army-Navy Store

BROOKSVILLE – It wasn’t until PJ’s Army-Navy went out of business that the MacKenzie’s pulled the trigger on their dream.

Spence MacKenzie shopped at P.J.’s since he was a boy. He was uncomfortable competing against someone he had known and respected his whole life.

He and his wife, Sheri, had been selling old U.S. Army jeeps for years, so they were already making a living in the military supply business.

Once the area’s lone Army-Navy supply store closed down 18 months ago, the couple jumped at the chance and opened Tactical Supply.

“We’re trying to make it the best surplus store we can,” he said. “We want it to be the best in Florida.”

The store opened at the corner of State Road 50 and Smith Street two weeks ago and already has been visited by hundreds of curious customers.

It will take another two months before the entire building is stocked, Sheri MacKenzie said.

There are knives, patches, rain gear, camping equipment, pouches, battle-dress uniforms and coolers.

There are plenty of supplies for collectors, military personnel, police officers, firefighters, campers and those looking to stock up in preparation for hurricane season.

Spence MacKenzie guessed 80 percent of his customers either served in the military or law enforcement. Most of the rest have some sort of ties to either.

His fascination with military equipment comes from his involvement in the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, of which he has been a member since he was a kid.

That was what planted the idea in his head that he wanted to be in the business of restoring and selling old military equipment. It fascinates him today as much as it did then.

The lawn of his store is stocked with several old Army vehicles and field artillery weapons.

The owners get their supplies from shows, swap meets, flea markets and various vendors. A trailer comes to the business once per week to drop off items. They spend Sundays and Mondays taking inventory and stocking the store.

Sometimes, local residents come in and donate their own items.

An old sniper suit hangs in his store. It was given to MacKenzie from a local Army recruiter. There are blood spots still visible on the sleeves.

Next to the sniper suit hangs a pair of black, silk pajamas.

Goose bumps were visible on MacKenzie’s skin when he talked about the story of those pajamas.

A former soldier who served in Vietnam was alone and stranded along the Cambodian border. A sympathetic native loaned him the pajamas and a conical hat, which helped him blend with the villagers and hide him from the Viet Cong, MacKenzie said.

The disguise worked. He was rescued weeks later.

The man loaned MacKenzie the pajamas, which are not for sale, he said. It makes for good storytelling whenever a customer comes in and asks about them.

MacKenzie is a native of Hernando County. He and his wife, who grew up in Orlando, have been married for nearly 14 years and have two sons. They live in the historical district of Brooksville.

“We wanted to be nowhere else other than Brooksville,” said Sheri MacKenzie.

Biz at a glance:

Name of biz – Tactical Supply

Owners – Spence and Sheri MacKenzie

What it is – Army-Navy supply store

Where it is – 490 Smith Street in Brooksville

Hours of operation – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Get in touch – 352-799-0300

On the Web – www.fltacticalsupply.com

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or wholt@hernandotoday.com.