Kathie Hernandez, the Director of the Montessori School in Belleair, stands in front of the school next to the Town Hall.
BELLEAIR – Right in the center of Belleair is Town Hall and the Recreation Complex. Right in the center of that is the Montessori School, built in 1948.
The school has attracted some attention lately because of remarks made by Belleair Mayor Gary Katica at a recent Commission meeting.
It was during discussion over what should happen with the Osborne property, a home on Ricker Road that was willed to the town by the late John Osborne. At the time Katica suggested that the town explore trading that property for the school. He went further to suggest that the school was for sale but would have limited appeal because of the lack of parking and potential code violations that any new owner would have to address.
School Director Cathie Hernandez read about the remarks and said it was time she set the record straight.
“The school is not listed for sale with anybody,” she said. “It never was and it isn’t now.”
She admitted that a conversation she had a while back with Parks and Rec Director Eric Wahlbeck might have led to a misunderstanding which prompted the mayor to say what he did.
“Last June Eric and I were talking and he asked me if I ever thought about putting the school up for sale,” she said. “I said if the price was right, but I’m not giving it away. If they were interested they were to let me know; I never heard from them.”
According to Hernandez the town took an interest in her property.
“Early in the year a local real estate agent, representing the town, approached me to see if I wanted to sell. Once again I said if the price was right. Then they did an appraisal, which they paid for, and which came out at $360,000. They offered me a third of that, ridiculous.”
The offer obviously didn’t seem ridiculous for the town. Town Manager Micah Maxwell said the $360,000 appraisal was based on the property being a school, not a parking lot, which is what the town would use it for.
“The appraised price is what it is, but that is not what we need it for,” said Maxwell. “Our use is something other than the school; it would be less than one third of the appraised value. I can’t justify using tax dollars for that much. It would really have to make sense for us financially and at $360,000, we can’t justify it.”
Hernandez had other issues with the town apart from the property swap and the town’s offer. She wonders if they are being good neighbors.
“Last Sunday when the outdoor concert was on I had to come to the school to do some work and there was a huge trailer and generator on my property and blocking my driveway,” she said. “No one asked me for permission. If they had I would have said yes, but it was a matter of respect. I have even let them run cables through my window and plug into my power. … They think I’m desperate, that’s what I hear, but I’m not desperate by any means. I’ve never missed a payroll with my teachers.”
Maxwell apologized for the Sunday incident with the trailer blocking her property.
“It was a mistake by one of our employees who was on traffic duty,” he said. “It was not something that was done on purpose and when the supervisor heard about it he had it moved immediately.”
As for other incidents, Maxwell said some are inevitable between neighbors who are so close.
“Other situations arise from time to time when you are right up against one another,” he said. “There have been conflicts, sure, but we try to work through them, on both sides we work through them.”
Katica says the idea of buying the property for $360,000 is out of line in his mind.
“The building is worthless because of all the code violations,” he said. “It is absolutely worthless. You can’t sell it for an office building because there is no parking there.”
Maxwell said there were no code violations involved in the school, but it was non-compliant. He explained with older buildings, codes change over time but unless there was something to trigger compliance, such as a sale to a non-related business, the school is perfectly legal.
Katica said his idea of swapping the Osborne property would make the most sense.
“That is my personal thing,” he said. “I haven’t brought it to the commission in any formal way and the five of us would have to decide. If we got the Montessori property the building would have to be torn down and that would cost us $10,000 to $15,000. We would make it a parking lot with 14 spaces.”
Despite all the back and forth Hernandez said she has not said no to the idea of the property swap.
“I haven’t said either way, but I’m leaning towards ‘no,’” she said. “I haven’t seen inside the house, I did walk around it. I have had a real estate friend look into it for me and in the end it is my parents call because they own the school. I always discuss everything with them first.”
Hernandez admitted her Montessori School has come into some hard times lately. The enrollment is down to 41 children from ages 1 to 6. That means the children move on once they are finished kindergarten. In better times the school had an enrollment up to sixth grade. There are currently eight teachers employed at the school.
“With the poor economy many parents just can’t afford private school anymore,” she said. “Things are looking up though. In the past couple of months we’re getting more and more phone calls, and I showed the school three times today, that is amazing. It is slowly coming back.”
Hernandez said she could still be in this for the long haul.
“Maybe I just want to try to stick it out for another year or so with the enrollment rising,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball but it is a little presumptuous to assume we’ll be gone. We’ve had a really good, long run. Maybe if we get 55 or 60 kids we’ll be around for a long time. I love what I do, I love being around children I could be here for another five years, who knows?”
To that she got nothing but encouragement from the mayor and town manager.
“If the school is going good, more power to her,” said Katica.
“She could be here for another 20 years and we’ll have to get along,” said Maxwell. “I’ll wish her the best of luck and we’ll continue to be neighbors and we’ll find other solutions for our parking problems.”