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Local dignitaries break ground for stand alone vocational school

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On Friday, February 18, school board members, school administrators, and other dignitaries broke ground for a new adult/technical education complex and county government center. It will be named the Dr. Dennis Wilfong Technology and Government Center in honor of a former businessman and “local hero” who dedicated his life to humanitarian projects in this area. Wilfong passed away last year from Covid-19 complications.

Attending the groundbreaking ceremony were School Superintendent John Stratton and school board members Susan Duval, Gus Guadagnino, Kay Hatch, Jimmy Lodato, and Linda Prescott. Representing the Hernando County government was Jeff Rogers, County Administrator. Sophia Watson, Director of Adult & Technical Education, who is credited as the project’s “think tank,” made some remarks, as well as US Congressman Daniel Webster (District 11).

Daniel Abou-Jaoude, Vice President of Skanska Corporation, also attended the groundbreaking. Skanska, a multinational construction company, will be building the complex located on 17.94 acres near the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. This property was purchased from the federal government for $1,794,000.

Abou-Jaoude stated, “Our goals for the project are really simple: cost, time, and people. We want to be great stewards of the money. We want to maximize the investment the state is making in Hernando… Our goal is to deliver this facility under budget and on time, but we want to deliver it with a local workforce and we’re not talking about businesses and vendors in Hernando or in Central Florida- we’re talking about people that live here and work here.”

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He stated that the lead superintendent on the project, Francis Coons, is a Hernando County resident. Coons is also a graduate of Pasco Hernando State College. “Over the next few months, Frank is going to lead an outreach effort right here in Hernando and surrounding counties to get people interested, engaged, and excited about the project,” said Abou-Jaoude.

Years in the making, the project is a collaboration of Pasco Hernando State College, Suncoast Technical Education Center, the Hernando County School District, and the Hernando County Government.

School Superintendent John Stratton commented, “This shows what happens when government entities work together. This is putting us [Hernando County] on the map.”

Director of Adult & Technical Education Sophia Watson reiterated Stratton’s feelings.

“This is a top-down approach and everyone is on board with this project. It will add so much to what we’re already offering,” stated Ms. Watson.

Currently, there are seven different community-based sites that offer technical and vocational training, along with GED and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes. Some of these vocational and technical classes are welding, cosmetology, law enforcement, apprenticeships in construction, and medical labs, such as phlebotomy. These locations will still be open after the new center is completed.

The education complex will serve the needs of people who don’t go to college but want to learn a trade. There will also be classrooms set up for people to get their GED (General Education Development) Certificate, an alternative to a high school diploma. The good thing is that the building will be utilized year-round, during the day for high school students and in the evening for adults. The goal is to open the school in August of 2023.

Due to the efforts of Florida State Senator Wilton Simpson, State Representative Ralph Massullo, State Representative Blaise Ingoglia, and other lawmakers, the county received a $6 million grant to prepare the site and for the necessary infrastructure. This includes everything from leveling the ground and making sure there is adequate drainage to putting in roads and traffic lights.

Massullo sponsored a bill in the house of representatives allocating $9.3 million dollars to build the Hernando School system’s 30,000 square foot facility and Simpson pushed for passage in the Senate. It took five years to get the bill from the legislature to the governor’s desk for him to sign.

School Board member Jimmy Lodato observed, “This is the future of our children. When you graduate 1,500 kids and 500 aren’t going to college, what do you do with them?”

School board member Susan Duval remarked, “The groundbreaking ceremony was the culmination of a vision and commitment made by many people over the past twenty-plus years. The fact that we are now at the point of actually building the facility indicates what perseverance can accomplish.”

Kay Hatch, another school board member, added, “We are grateful for all who have committed to this project. We can only imagine the impact it will have.”

The Hernando Sun will be following up with other articles outlining more details as the project progresses.

Tagline: Rendering of the complex (Image courtesy of Adult & Technical Education department)

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