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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

School board member skeptical of city's plan to lease Rio Vista school land



Pinellas County school board members on Tuesday gave a majority "head-nod" to move forward with a proposal to lease the 8-acre Rio Vista Elementary school property to the City of St. Petersburg for virtually nothing for use as a park. The board will have to take a formal vote on the matter before it's a done deal, but at least one board member said she has serious issues with it.

Under the most recent proposal, the school district would lease the land to the city for 50 years at $1 a year and the school district would forfeit any right to break the lease for at least 10 years unless it reimbursed the city the estimated $1.2 million to $1.6 million the municipality expects to pay to raze the school and make land improvements.

During Tuesday's board workshop, Robin Wikle said the plan to "lease" the land to the city without first conducting an appraisal of the site is irresponsible, posing the question as to whether board members would do such a thing with their personal property. "I would love the City of St. Petersburg to have a parcel," she said. "Take it to the citizens, get a referendum and purchase it for fair market value."

Wikle said despite the fact that the arrangement is technically a "lease," it essentially amounts to the district giving it away: "We will not be getting that land back," she said.

Michael Bessette, associate superintendent of facilities and operations, said the school parcel, located at 8131 Macoma Dr. NE, is too small to be used for a school and so low that it would require a significant amount of fill to be usable. "Odds are we'll never build a school there," he said.

After some debate Tuesday, Wikle got support from the rest of the school board to direct Bessette to obtain an appraisal of the property. Bessette said he hopes to have the appraisal complete in about five weeks. Since closing the school in 2009, the district has spent about $150,000 in upkeep on it -- $109,126 in 2009-10 and $39,225 in 2010-11, according to Bessette

St. Petersburg City Council Chair Jim Kennedy is pushing for the deal. The land lies in his district and, he says, would become the district's only park with any amenities such as a playground, tennis courts, basketball courts and hiking trails.

"From my point of view," Kennedy said, "the taxpayers provided the funds for the school board to purchase that property and it's the same taxpayers who will benefit from the park."

Wikle, who lives in Tarpon Springs and has helped manage a real estate business with her husband, said she likes parks and understands the vacant school may be an eyesore, but said it would be in the best interest of the district to sell the property for what it's worth -- not to give it away.

"Pinellas County school board properties are assets that belong to the school board and they are paid for with taxes by the entire county," she said.

Kennedy countered that the city has assisted the county with similar arrangements in the past -- giving the school district as much as 10 acres of real estate. He attended Tuesday's meeting along with Lori Matway, the city's education and government services managing director and a former school district employee.

Bessette said he hopes to bring more information about the proposal to the school board at its next workshop in September.

[Last modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 3:11pm]


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