The Sarasota County School Board kicked off 2014 with its first board meeting of the new year Tuesday, taking time to highlight some of the district's most recent accomplishments despite a growing controversy over health concerns at Sarasota County's largest elementary school.
Tuesday's School Board meeting, which more than 100 area residents attended, began with a demonstration of robotics projects from the science labs of Brookside, Sarasota, Heron Creek and Woodland middle schools.
The board then honored the recent ranking of Alta Vista Elementary School among the state's top 20 Title I schools, as well as the selection of Alta Vista's principal, Dr. Barbara Shirley, as one of the top three finalists for the Florida Principal Award for Outstanding Leadership.
Shirley received a standing ovation from a contingent of Alta Vista parents and teachers attending the meeting.
"We never think about honor or recognition when we do our work," Shirley said. "We do it because it is the right thing to do for the children."
John Zoretich, executive director of elementary schools, said it was the first time a principal from Sarasota County had been selected as one of the top-three finalists for the award. The winner will be announced Feb. 3.
The congratulatory atmosphere of Tuesday's meeting quickly turned to confrontation, however, when parents from Lamarque Elementary School — which has 881 students, making it Sarasota County's largest elementary school — took advantage of the public forum to dress down Superintendent Lori White and the rest of the board for what they claimed were serious health hazards at the North Port school.
A rash of unexplained illnesses among teachers and students at the school — including nose bleeds, headaches, dizziness and asthma-like symptoms — had some parents at Tuesday's meeting calling for the $26 million campus to be closed.
Scott Lempe, the district's chief operating officer, pushed back agasint the parents' claims that the school wasn't safe, and reassured them that Chinese drywall, which has been linked to health problems similar to what is being observed at Lamarque, was not used in the project's construction, referencing tests done at the site to make sure the toxic material was not present.
“There’s absolutely nothing at Lamarque that would make it less than a healthy school,” Lempe said, responding to the parents' concerns. “If we have reason to believe anything isn’t right, we act swiftly.”
Parents were apparently unconvinced with Lempe's assertions, and the tone of the meeting deteriorated, provoking School Board Member Jane Goodwin to threaten to clear out the gallery.
Problems have plagued Lamarque since its opening in 2006. Teachers and students initially complained about foul odors, but anxiety mounted during the 2013-2014 school year following reports of illnesses possibly linked to environmental conditions at the campus.
The district anticipates it will spend approximately $700,000 to study possible environmental hazards at Lamarque.
The Sarasota County School Board will hold its next monthly work session and board meeting starting at 10 a.m., Jan. 21, at the Landings Administrative Complex, 1980 Landings Blvd., Sarasota.
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]