Sunday, May 20, 2018
Education

Is former Pinellas charter school operating out of Trinity Town Center?

TRINITY — From the street, Trinity Town Center in Pasco County still looks mostly deserted.

But a peek inside one section of the troubled shopping center, plagued by lawsuits and the housing bust, reveals some activity. A handful of students sit at tables in a room that has a globe. A woman sits at a larger desk doing paperwork and sometimes walking over to the tables.

Whether the students are part of St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian School, a private school owned and operated by Trinity Town Center developer Bill Planes and his wife, Regina, remains unclear.

The site of the original school, built in 2006 on Keystone Road in Tarpon Springs, is deserted. No signs have been put up directing people to a new location. The school's original wooden sign remains stuck in the grass, beckoning folks to stop in and check it out. It's faded and covered with construction dirt.

Neither Bill nor Regina Planes responded to numerous phone calls or notes left at Planes' office at the town center on Tryfon Boulevard. The woman in the room with the students referred all questions to the Planeses, who keep an office several doors down.

Pinellas County School District records show that the Planeses applied in July to make St. Nicholas, which has no affiliation with St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, a charter school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Charter schools receive taxpayer money but operate privately.

However, the school withdrew the application shortly after it was filed.

A Feb. 14 email Bill Planes sent to Pinellas County charter schools administrator Dot Clark said the school planned to reapply in 2012 and limit instruction to elementary grades. They also were considering changing the school's name to Keystone Academy to avoid any misunderstanding that the school is affiliated with the Tarpon church or is Greek.

"Just so there will not be any confusion, we have moved St. Nicholas to Pasco County and have the school property not being used at this time," Planes wrote.

Clark replied that if Planes stayed in Pasco, he would need to apply to the Pasco School District for charter status. However, a Pasco district representative said no applications had been received from St. Nicholas.

Because St. Nicholas is private, it is not regulated by the school district or the Florida Department of Education, so there are no public records indicating where the school is now.

It was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Association of Independent Schools of Florida, but representatives say those accreditations are no longer current. Pat Wentz of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said St. Nicholas was accredited with the agency from 2009 to January 2012. She said the school chose to end its accreditation and could reinstate it as long as it's done within a calendar year.

As for the shopping center, Planes, who was given a deadline by Pasco County to clean up the site at Little Road and Trinity Boulevard last year, has met that. He also has until the end of this year to secure building permits for the project. Red, white and blue banners on the empty buildings say "Now leasing" and give a phone number and email address to direct inquiries.

However, emails and phone calls from the Tampa Bay Times went unreturned.

Researcher Caryn Baird and Correspondent Lisa A. Davis contributed to this report.

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