Special Reports

Lockheed gift helps schools

MANATEE - Defense contractor Lockheed Martin, embroiled in a long-running cleanup of toxic pollution surrounding its former property in the Tallevast area, has donated $100,000 to jump-start three science and technology-related programs in the Manatee County School District.

The money will be used to to fund a teacher-training project with the South Florida Museum, increase participation in science and engineering fairs and upgrade the school district's environmental science program, according to district records.

The company received recognition and a plaque from Superintendent Roger Dearing during a board meeting Monday night.

Despite the controversy surrounding the estimated 200-acre underground toxic plume, traced to the former Loral American Beryllium Co. plant, school district officials say they welcome the company's contribution.

"We've had no discussions relative to the (Tallevast) issue," said Margi Nanney, Manatee schools spokeswoman. "It's been about the school district as a whole. Their expertise and resources can help students in district as a whole."

School officials hope the relationship with Lockheed will be long-term. Lockheed, in turn, says its donation will help Manatee produce scientists and engineers it could hire in the future.

Out of 140,000 workers it employs, mostly in the United States, 90,000 will be retiring in the next decade, said Gail Rymer, Lockheed's director of community relations.

"There aren't enough students in the science and math pipelines to fill those jobs," Rymer said. "We need to look now for ways to get them into that pipeline."

The programs Lockheed is funding could be a first step. In the joint project with the South Florida Museum, up to 150 teachers will be selected to participate in a series of workshops, called the Institute of Science Teaching, to help them generate ideas on ways to teach science, said Jeff Rodgers, the museum's education director.

Lockheed's funding also will be used to buy equipment to beef up the district's environmental science programs in middle schools, including some that will allow students a chance to measure and analyze soil samples, Nanney said.

The company also will pay for a Space Day in May at Kinnan Elementary School that will include participation from Abel Elementary students, said Nanney and Rymer.

"We're looking at ways to get involved at local schools, in places where we have environmental cleanups going on, but where we don't have facilities there," Rymer said. "What I do is to become a local presence and to work with those communities."

But Tallevast resident Wanda Washington was skeptical of Lockheed's intention, describing the gesture as "buying sympathy from the public."

"I don't have a problem with them donating money to schools, just as long as the schools are safe for the children and staff," said Washington, vice president of FOCUS, a Tallevast advocacy group.

In a public meeting with Tallevast officials a year ago, Washington said, residents raised concerns about whether the plume extends to nearby elementary schools, Abel to the northwest and Kinnan to the northeast.

Forrest Branscomb, the district's risk manager, said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection found tests at the schools were unnecessary because they are outside the area of the contamination.

Plus, he said, the schools draw their drinking water from the county's water system instead of local wells, he said.

However, the size and borders of the plume are still being challenged by Tallevast residents and developers.

Sylvia Lim, education reporter, can be reached at 745-7041 or slim@Bradenton.com.