Tampa City Council wants to be kept in the loop about fate of Lee Elementary

Supporters of Lee Elementary school line up to address the Tampa City Council on Feb. 15, 2018  Photo Credit: Charlie Frago
Supporters of Lee Elementary school line up to address the Tampa City Council on Feb. 15, 2018 Photo Credit: Charlie Frago
Published February 15 2018
Updated February 15 2018
About a dozen supporters of saving Lee Elementary asked Tampa City Council members Thursday to collectively use their power as a bully pulpit to persuade the Hillsborough County School District to reopen the Tampa Heights School.

Council members said repeatedly that the city has no jurisdiction over the school property, but several of them said the school's future was an important issue that deserved more public discussion.

The historic school at 305 Columbus Dr. burned after electricity was restored in the wake of Hurricane Irma in September. The school was mostly wooden with no indoor sprinkler system.

The 300 or so students have been relocated to nearby Lockhart Elementary.

Parents and Tampa Heights Civic Association members said the school was a unifying neighborhood gem. They criticized the school district's inaction and appealed to council members to put pressure on the country's eighth-largest district.

"I understand it's a jurisdictional issue, it's a school board thing. But when it come down to it, it's a neighborhood issue and you guys represent the neighborhood," said Justin Rick of the Tampa Heights Civic Association.

Something needs to be done, said Karl Messenger, father of two students who had attended Lee. Hurricane Irma was bad enough, he said, but the uncertainty of the last five months has taken a toll.

"What we didn't expect to be even more devastating was the lack of action, leadership, care and initiative by this school district,, school board, and  I would contend, the city at large," Messenger said.

Chris Farkas, the district's chief operating officer, sent a letter on Tuesday saying that the district is negotiating with its insurer over the initial offer, which district officials thought was too low. The district has hired its own engineering and construction firms to do its own evaluation. Those results are expected in early March.

Until then, district spokesman Grayson Kamm told council members, there is not much the district can do.

"There is no desire to delay on our part," Kamm said. "We're taking this seriously."

The district has designated the area superintendent to be the point of contact with the community to improve communication, Kamm said.

Council members Frank Reddick and Mike Suarez said residents' concerns about vandalism and homeless people living inside should be taken seriously.

“We’ve had rumors of people staying there. That’s bad for the neighborhood,” Suarez said.

If the school, which was severely damaged, can't be saved, then perhaps architectural elements can be preserved or replicated in a new building, said council chairwoman Yvonne "Yolie" Capin.

"I hope there is a silver lining to this," Capin said.

Council members voted for the school district to update them on the situation at the council's April 5 meeting.