LARGO — A long-discussed plan that would provide affordable housing to Pinellas teachers moved a small step forward Tuesday after receiving enthusiastic support from five of seven School Board members.
First proposed three years ago, the plan would involve converting the aging Euclid Center, a former elementary school northwest of downtown St. Petersburg, into 27 townhomes valued at $220,000 each. The townhomes would be sold to teachers for as little as $120,000, providing an opportunity for the district to recruit and retain high- quality educators.
Tuesday's vote opened the door for the nonprofit Downtown St. Petersburg Partnership to launch a 120-day feasibility study of the project. The actual sale of the property, valued at $1.5-million in 2006, would be subject to a School Board vote.
Board member Jane Gallucci hailed the project as "a long-term shining star for the district," adding that the board "owes it to itself to listen to what the development board has been working on."
Board member Peggy O'Shea said the plan has the potential not only to attract teachers who otherwise could not afford to move here. It would allow them to build equity as well, she said.
And board member Janet Clark said the project could be a model for hundreds of similar plans that could be replicated throughout the county.
"I think this is the way the future is going to look," Clark said. "We'll have affordable housing scattered throughout the district."
But board members Nancy Bostock and Linda Lerner expressed reservations. Both said they were wary of relinquishing School Board property when the district is in the middle of a budget crisis.
"At this moment in time, $1.5-million benefiting 27 of our employees is just not something I can support," Bostock said.
Lerner had additional concerns about what would happen if a teacher who owns one of the townhomes decides to work elsewhere.
"My understanding is they won't own the land," she said. "If they stop working for the district, it gets complicated."
Superintendent Julie Janssen reminded the board that such concerns were premature.
"Nothing is binding until it comes back to the board," Janssen said. "Nothing is binding until a dollar amount is reached."
But the longer the board takes to move forward, the more difficult it might be to make the plan work, said Randy Wedding, an architect and executive committee member of the Downtown Partnership.
"The cost to build is probably the same as it was three years ago," Wedding said. "Finding mortgage companies willing to loan the teachers money will be more difficult."
In the end, the decision will come down to how much value the board attaches to affordable housing, School Board attorney Jim Robinson said after the meeting.
"If you can't pay teachers money, maybe you can pay them in some other way," he said.
He added: "Right now, that building is producing nothing. It's just an expense."