Saturday, December 16, 2017
Education

Pasco schools, county ponder shared space in Starkey Ranch

TRINITY — In initial conversations, plans for Pasco County government and the school district to share space in the Starkey Ranch development meant a school and some playing fields next to each other.

School district officials had something different in mind, though: They were thinking more about sharing use of facilities, not just location.

So they crumpled up the initial drawings and created their own conceptual design. It included a large K-8 school in the center, with shared athletic fields and a track, a public library that would serve the school and a black box theater for school and community use.

"We're even looking at how we could use the cafeteria as a gathering spot for the community," assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said.

County officials praised the proposals, which would be the first of their kind in Pasco if executed.

"We are excited about the potential at this site," county Administrator Michele Baker said. "These are new concepts, but they are very intriguing."

Starkey Ranch developers are equally enthusiastic, spokeswoman Erin Gray said.

"This district park makes it even a more amazing neighborhood than was originally planned," Gray said. "This answers a lot of needs in the community."

Officials figured the result could prove an attraction for home buyers while also saving taxpayers money. But many details need hashing out before the design can become a reality.

The parties have to figure out who pays for which part of the construction and then for the ongoing operation and maintenance, for instance. They also need to negotiate use and access arrangements, keeping in mind such laws as the Jessica Lunsford Act, which aims to keep sexual predators away from schools. Other elements include the design footprint and stormwater runoff.

"I think all of the issues can be overcome at the table with dialogue," Baker said. "We are committed to doing that."

Gadd said the Jessica Lunsford Act can be dealt with by keeping the library and other areas that might be used by the public during school hours separated from the main school building. Teachers and students could take a "field trip" across the parking lot to the public library if they needed to go there, he said.

By having the library outside the school, Gadd added, it reinforces the importance of such institutions to students, who won't have access to school media centers after graduation.

Pasco County School Board members and county commissioners expressed their support for the joint effort, which remains in its initial stages.

"It's done in other places," said Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who has pushed for shared governmental facilities both on the commission and when she served on the School Board. "It can be done and it should be done."

Starkey's family owned and recently sold the development site, which also will include a town center and about 5,000 homes and apartments. She said she sees the location as perfect for a K-8 school alongside the other amenities.

School Board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong agreed.

"It will take a lot of work and cooperation," Armstrong said of the project. "But it's something that would be well worthwhile trying to get it worked out. Co-use takes it to a whole new level."

Gray said the developers, Wheelock Street Capital, want to begin construction in late 2014 or early 2015. That puts negotiations for this site on the front burner.

"The next step is sitting with the developer's representatives and starting to put together the framework of a deal," probably in early September, Baker said. "The School Board has given us some conceptual designs. … Now it's time to put pen to paper and see how we can make it work."

Schools superintendent Kurt Browning said he'll commit his team to the effort. The district is looking to build the school in 2017, if not earlier.

"It only makes sense to do this," Browning said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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