Thursday, July 19, 2018
Education

Pinellas edges toward plan that would join a school and YMCA facility

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County School District officials are inching closer to creating a joint school and YMCA facility in the Shore Acres community.

A year and a half after the idea was first introduced to the Pinellas County School Board, representatives from the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg will present a time line for the possible project at the School Board's April 18 workshop. School Board members are expected to discuss the proposal at length.

Officials have been eyeing the 16-acre parcel where Riviera Middle once stood at 501 62nd Ave. NE as a potential location. District officials have said a school there could alleviate overcrowding at Meadowlawn Middle, and a YMCA facility could offer before- and after-school programs.

"There is a strong level of interest and support from both groups moving forward," said school district spokeswoman Melanie Parra. "We want to make sure we go through this the right way."

No details have been released regarding what kind of school would open on the property, what kind of YMCA facility would be placed there, or when the joint facility would open. YMCA spokeswoman Ashley Ryneska said some specifics, such as potential facility layouts and funding, would be reviewed after the workshop.

Unknowns like those have kept School Board member Rene Flowers from fully jumping on board. When the idea was first floated by the board, she expressed concerns about traffic congestion and how necessary it was to build a new school, given that the board recently turned to the bond market to fund an estimated $125 million worth of major projects.

She worried about how many student seats were needed and if the district could afford staffing the school. A low student population of 680 led the district to close Riviera Middle during budget cuts in 2008. The school was later razed.

"I'm not dismissing that there could be an opportunity, but we also have to be cognizant of the things we're trying to fix," Flowers said. "We do have other facilities and other buildings that need to be utilized and expanded."

School Board Chairwoman Peggy O'Shea and Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego toured a joint YMCA and school facility at Lake Nona near Orlando International Airport last year. O'Shea, who was impressed with the school's shared resources such as a full gym, said Pinellas would consider a middle school model instead an elementary school like the one they saw in Orlando.

"If we can get an agreement and funding and all the pieces in place, I'm supportive of the effort," O'Shea said. "I think it could work."

In August, the YMCA conducted a survey in the Shore Acres area to gauge interest in opening a facility there. Although the demographics were skewed, with most of the respondents being YMCA members, they overwhelmingly said they favored a facility that valued health and well-being, and college and career readiness. The survey never asked participants about plans to build a school.

Last month, a Shore Acres Elementary parent emailed Grego asking about the status of the partnership project. She explained that Meadowlawn, with its bursting student population, lacked the neighborhood school feel that she admired about Shore Acres, and said she would consider sending her child to a private middle school.

Grego wrote back: "Our school board is supportive of this concept. It's a matter of funding and establishing a workable time line."

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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