Organizers of a proposed St. Pete Beach charter school hope to move into the former St. Pete Beach police station or the vacant Gulf Beaches Elementary School building.
Former Gulf Beaches Elementary School building
ST. PETE BEACH – City commissioners agreed June 11 that until they receive more information on the needs of a potential charter school site from Pinellas County Schools, the former city police station would not be an option.
In fact, St. Pete Beach Commissioners went a step further and recommended organizers of the proposed Academy by the Sea focus on the former Gulf Beaches Elementary School campus at 8600 Boca Ciega Drive, which closed four years ago.
“Anything you can do to get us there would be great because eventually we would like to be (kindergarten) through (grade) 12,” said Wendy Holmes, a member of the board of directors at Montessori by the Sea in Pass-A-Grille, which is proposing the new school. “We toured the (Gulf Beaches Elementary) building. It’s in great shape and it would be perfect for us. We’d appreciate anything you can do to help.”
The problem, Holmes said, is Pinellas school officials made it clear they have no intention of leasing the site.
“It’s our understanding from the Pinellas County School Board that they have no plans to lease their schools at this time,” said Sarah Tierney, a magnet school recruiter in Hillsborough County who is acting as a consultant with the Academy by the Sea team. “It’s a shame because you have this perfect facility not being used to educate students.”
Because of the response by Pinellas school officials, Academy proponents are now discussing the possibility of using the former police station, which has about 12,000 useable square feet, according to City Manager Mike Bonfield.
Academy organizers are in the process of finalizing their application for a charter school with Pinellas County Schools. They expect to submit it Aug. 1 and hopefully receive a decision by someone in the late fall.
The application is for a 150-student facility in grades four through eight. Montessori by the Sea currently teaches children in kindergarten through grade three.
If all goes well, the new school would open in August 2014. Fundraising efforts are already underway, Holmes said.
“We feel that a strong public education provides a strong foundation for our children,” said Luann Schecht, a member of the Montessori by the Sea board of directors. “We have children that are members of the community that would like to be the leaders of the community. Just like children need a good foundation, we need a good building for our foundation.”
Schecht said the group has other public buildings available, including the former Village Inn Pancake Restaurant at 4945 Gulf Blvd., “but none of them compare to what we have here,” referring to the former police station.
Commissioners explained that they’ve had no previous discussion on the future of the former police station.
There has even been some discussion that City Hall might relocate to the site. The city currently occupies a 23,000-square-foot structure that is home to 17 employees. Bonfield said the city could get by with less space and possibly turn the current City Hall over to a new owner in conjunction with future Corey Avenue redevelopment.
“We’re just not at the stage of evaluating what we’re going to do (with the former police station),” said Mayor Steve McFarlin. “Once we get the word out, we might have 10 people applying (to rent) that property. If we decide to rent, we need to go through a procedure to appraise and decide what we should get for it. I don’t know if $5,000 (per month) is right, or $10,000 is right.”
McFarlin questioned if the county would require the site to have certain recreational requirements and whether a fence would be necessary around the school campus.
Tierney said the county does not obligate recreation needs and if a lease for the former police station were worked out, the school would pursue an agreement with the city to use the city recreation center for that purpose.
Tierney said she wasn’t sure if the county would make a fence mandatory but Bonfield said it could be cause for concern.
“I think what’s important is we would have to find out at some point what the county would require of the facility,” Bonfield said. “We need to know those details. Physically, what’s going to be required? For instance, a fence. Personally, I think if it has to be fenced it’s out. It’s a deal-breaker. It’s not going to happen.”
Other commissioners lauded the group’s efforts but agreed that the city’s best interest must come first.
“I congratulate you on your effort and energy to bring a school to St. Pete Beach,” said Vice Mayor Lorraine Huhn. “If there’s any possibility Gulf Beaches Elementary could be made available, I believe we would work with you for that if that’s something that would be of interest to you. But outside of that, I personally am not ready to make any type of commitment on the part of the city.”
“Government works very slow,” said Commissioner Marvin Shavlan. “So I can’t imagine how we could possibly be ready to give you a decision by Aug. 1.”
Commissioner Melinda Pletcher agreed.
“It’s nice that we have this option that we may be the final place for you or we may team up with you,” she said. “But I kind of share the sentiment of the rest of the board.”
Commissioner Jim Parent said he was encouraged by the discussion and was impressed with the proposed school’s application with county school officials. He suggested the city move as quickly as possible to make a decision, one way or the other.
“I think everyone feels like we should utilize our city facilities for a multitude of reasons,” Parent said. “Any source of revenue to offset taxes is a good thing. We do move slowly at times. We need to use this discussion as a stimulus to move forward.”
McFarlin called the cause very worthy.
“Is the cause worthy? Of course it is,” he said. “But again, our first rule is to be stewards of our operations.”