Thursday, September 20, 2018

Hillsborough school district says it has not abandoned Lee Elementary School

The Hillsborough County School District says it is doing all it can, reasonably and safely, to protect what remains of Lee Elementary School.

Steps were taken immediately to shore up the exterior brick wall. An engineering and construction team is working on a response to an insurer's low estimate to rebuild the school, which was gutted by a fire in the final hours of Hurricane Irma.

"We expect results by early March," school district chief operating officer  Chris Farkas wrote in a letter to members of the Tampa City Council.

In writing the letter, which included copies of correspondence to Lee parents, Farkas was seeking to get in front of what could be an angry presentation from the school's supporters at Thursday's 9 a.m. City Council meeting.

The school, a historic building with a largely wooden interior but no sprinkler system, caught fire when power was restored after 48 hours of darkness during the September hurricane. The Fire Marshall concluded the fire was accidental and electrical. Hurricane winds and rain had whipped power lines around violently, and there likely was a surge in the attic area.

Since then, it's been a tug of war between the district, which wants to weigh its options carefully during these tight budget times; and supporters of the school, a group that includes loyal parents and homeowners who consider

From the Lee Elementary School website, here is what hallway displays looked like before the fire. [HCPS]

the building important in their neighborhood's revitalization.

Where critics have described "demolition by decay" as the building is vulnerable to rainstorms and vandalism, Farkas argues in his letter that it would be dangerous to put a tarp over the structure. "Any tarp would act as sails in the winds and buckets in the rain," he wrote. The exterior brick wall – already fragile despite work that was done to prop it up – could crumble entirely.

More than 850,000 gallons of water were poured into the building to extinguish the fire, which was still burning the morning after the blaze. Water damage to the interior is extensive and irreversible, Farkas wrote.  The district is disputing the insurer's  claim that  "the building and exterior wall cannot be saved in any way for future use."

On top of all those issues, he wrote, it is too dangerous for workers to enter the property. As for the vandalism issue, Farkas said there is a six-foot fence around the building. (Neighbors say intruders have gotten in anyway, and they have seen contents of the school scattered on the sidewalk.)

Ultimately, money could be a deciding factor in whether Lee is rebuilt in any form. Supporters are having fundraisers and researching preservation grants. But there could be a multi million-dollar gap between the cost of reconstruction and the resources available. In the meantime, nearby Lockhart Elementary School has been able to absorb Lee's entire student body – slightly more than 300 students – for this school year and the next.

In the days after the Lee Elementary School fire, volunteers and school employees moved all teachers and staff from Lee into nearby Lockhart Elementary, where they will remain until the end of the 2018-19 school year.In the days after the Lee Elementary School fire, volunteers and school employees moved all teachers and staff from Lee into nearby Lockhart Elementary, where they will remain until the end of the 2018-19 school year.

There is also the question of what to name the school. At a School Board workshop on Tuesday, board members agreed to pursue a policy change inspired by last year's controversy over Lee, which was named after Confederate hero Robert E. Lee. The policy now requires an 18 month waiting period before renaming a school. The proposed change would remove that restriction.

Supporters say the school was long ago rebranded as simply "Lee." But the exterior wall still bears the name of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and the district was considering a name change before the fire. [Times files]Supporters say the school was long ago rebranded as simply “Lee.” But the exterior wall still bears the name of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and the district was considering a name change before the fire. [Times files]

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