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April 16, 2004

Possible changes to FSDB bill create concern

From: St. Augustine Record - St. Augustine,FL,USA - Apr 16, 2004

Staff Writer

Suggested changes in a Florida Senate bill designed to regulate business practices of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind has caught some of the school's neighbors by surprise.

Residents of Nelmar Terrace, embroiled in a controversy with the school over its expansion plans, are opposed to the suggested changes in Senate Bill 2918 by its sponsor, Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach. The changes would support the concept of formal agreements between the school and the city of St. Augustine for expansion matters, but not require them.

And that, residents say, would keep the status quo in place.

"Nothing is really going to be accomplished," said Melinda Rakoncay, president of the Nelmar Terrace Neighborhood Association.

She said the bill would lead to lawsuits between the city and school.

"That is not a healthy way to solve problems," she said.

Senate Bill 2918 and House Bill 1059, sponsored by state Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, were written to address problems uncovered in a 2002 state audit of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. The audit listed 13 violations of state law in the school's business practices, some of them involved the school's expansion into the Nelmar Terrace neighborhood.

The Senate Committee on Government Oversight and Productivity was scheduled to review the bill and the amendments Tuesday, but lawmakers ran out of time. The committee is scheduled to hear the bill Monday in Tallahassee from 4 to 6 p.m.

Atwater said he made the changes after working with school officials and listening to the community. It's a natural process of give and take, he said.

School President Elmer Dillingham said the school can live with the changes.

But residents are concerned about their consequences.

"The inter-local agreement was the guts of it," Rakoncay said.

Walter Sauls wrote a letter to Atwater asking him not to pursue the amendments and keep the inter-local agreement requirement in the bill.

"Should you allow the school this exception they will continue to think they don't have to abide by the rules," Sauls wrote.

Wiles' bill would treat the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind like a university and require the school to make formal agreements with the city and develop long range master plans. Wiles said that would give the community years to learn about expansion plans instead of the 90 days required by the amendments.

He said state law has worked well for universities in Florida, and the school should be treated like one.

Senate Bill 2918 must still be heard by the Committees on Government Oversight and Productivity and Appropriations, and the Subcommittee on Education Appropriations.

House Bill 1059 is scheduled to be heard by the Appropriations Committee today.

The bills must be reconciled with one another before the full Legislature can act. If the Legislature passes the bill, then it goes to the governor for his action.

© The St. Augustine Record