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Resignation Follows Portable-Classroom Flap

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The superintendent of the Orange County, Fla., schools has announced his retirement after weeks of controversy about dilapidated conditions of modular classrooms in the district.

Donald Shaw said earlier this month that he plans to leave June 30, a year before the end of his contract, but added that his announcement was unrelated to criticism about the portable facilities.

He has been under fire since a story last month in the Orlando Sentinel detailed problems with the county's 2,000 modular classrooms. Many are waterlogged and rotting because of design flaws, the newspaper reported, and repairs and replacement are likely to cost the district millions of dollars.

In the wake of the revelations, a few angry school board members criticized Mr. Shaw, saying he had failed to inform them of the leaking doors and windows, waterlogged floors, poor ventilation, and other problems with the prefabricated classrooms.

At a board meeting Oct. 21, the superintendent acknowledged that he had learned about some of the defects during the past year, but said that his facilities team didn't indicate how widespread the problems were. He said he had asked the members of that team to resign.

School records show the condition of the modular classrooms had been featured in administrative memos and reports dating back to 1992, but the superintendent said the most detailed reports never reached his desk.

Surprise Announcement

Mr. Shaw, 55, a former Orange County teacher who rose through the ranks to the top post, had been popular with both board members and parents during his four-year tenure as superintendent. Despite the embarrassment over the past weeks, he had said only a week before his retirement announcement that he was committed to staying in office until a list of his goals had been met.

"There has been much speculation about my retirement date," Mr. Shaw told the school board Nov. 5. "Good leadership requires standing in the face of adversity and personal challenges. ... Together we can move this district forward."

At the board's request, Mr. Shaw came to its Nov. 12 meeting with a plan to repair the modular classrooms. But in the closing minutes of the meeting, Mr. Shaw surprised the board and his colleagues by announcing his retirement. He said his decision had nothing to do with the facilities problem.

"I began looking months ago at my options," he told the audience, reading from a statement. "My intent in the last few weeks was not to be coy or evasive."

Mr. Shaw was vacationing last week and unavailable for comment. As chief of the county's 130,000-student district, he receives a salary of $119,640. His contract was set to expire June 30, 1998.

The school board's vice chairman, Bert Carrier, said he was saddened by the superintendent's announcement.

"Don had the full support of the school board, parents, and the business community" if he had decided to stay, Mr. Carrier said. "He has dedicated 35 years of his life to this school system and would never do anything to detract from a child's education."

Mr. Shaw enjoys widespread support from the community, Mr. Carrier added. "We've had more calls from parents concerned about him leaving office than we ever did from parents complaining about the conditions in modular classrooms."

Mr. Carrier said the seven-member school board was beginning a nationwide search for a new superintendent.

A Cheap Fix

The Sentinel article, which ran on the front page of the paper's Oct. 20 edition, detailed problems with many of the modular classrooms the district placed in service between 1985 and 1995.

In an interview last week, a spokeswoman for the district acknowledged problems with the portable classrooms, but said only a small portion--10 percent or less--need major repairs or replacement.

"Even in those schools, there are no safety hazards being posed to children," the spokeswoman, April Podner, said. "We have some leaking and mold problems, but in Florida, everything molds."

Ms. Podner said the use of modular classrooms was virtually the only option available to the district during the past decade, given its skyrocketing enrollment and a limited budget. Although the student population continues to grow, she said, the county has opted since 1995 to build more traditional and permanent structures.

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