Two years after Pinellas County School Board members closed Rio Vista Elementary, they appeared poised to lease it to the city of St. Petersburg for use as a neighborhood park.
Board members met last week with Mayor Bill Foster and City Council chairman Jim Kennedy to discuss the potential deal. The terms are still being hammered out.
The land lies in Kennedy's district and would become the area's only park with any amenities such as a playground, tennis courts, basketball courts and hiking trails.
Despite objections by School Board chairwoman Robin Wikle, the rest of the board members said they like the proposal — several going so far as to praise the city for its record of support for city schools.
"I've lived here 58 years and I don't know of another group that has come forward the way they have," said Terry Krassner.
As the agreement stands now, school officials would lease the 8-acre property to the city for 50 years for $1 a year. The school district would be prohibited from breaking the lease for at least 10 years. After that, should school officials decide to take the property back for use or sale, they would be required to reimburse the city for some portion of what the city is expected to shell out to raze the school building and prepare the site.
Estimates brought to the board by the district staff suggested razing the school could cost $400,000.
And, according to school district real estate analyst Ginny Pannill, two independent property appraisals estimated the value of the land to be $425,000 and $600,000 once the building is removed.
But Wikle said those numbers seem low. According to the Pinellas County property appraiser, the property, at 8131 Macoma Drive NE in the Riviera Bay neighborhood, is valued at $3 million with the building.
"I kind of feel like the Grinch who stole the park," Wikle said during the meeting. "I believe as a School Board member, it's important to put all options on the table and really scrutinize our surplus, our assets that we have in the district, especially at a time like this."
In September, Wikle pushed the board to have the appraisals done before signing off on the deal. She argued that it made little financial sense to give away a piece of land before finding out its value.
Michael Bessette, associate superintendent who oversees facilities, said that even if the school district did decide to use it in the future, its use would be limited. The parcel is too small to be used as a school, he said, and it's in a flood plain.
"Long-term leasing of each other's property is not a new idea between the School Board and the city," he said. "We currently have two 99-year leases with the city of St. Petersburg for property for physical education space at two schools."
Woodlawn and Campbell Park elementaries both use city land for playground and P.E. facilities.
Wikle countered that both of those were put to a voter referendum. She said the district should advertise the sale of the property and sell it to the city for the minimal appraisal, if appropriate.
"Even if we got a half-million for it," she said, "it would be a half-million that we would have that we didn't have."
Board member Peggy O'Shea said now's not the time to sell. But she said it makes sense to keep the district's options open in the future.
Mayor Foster said the city would work with the school district in the future if school officials determined it could get a good price by selling. "We're in the education business with you," he said.
But even board members who approve of the lease said that going forward with this agreement limits the district's future options.
After all, you can't give a community a park and then decide to take it back without a fight.
"I'm supportive of this," board member Carol Cook said, "but if we go into this thinking that if in 10 years we're going to ask for it back and everything's going to be fine, it's not going to be an easy thing to do."
Bessette said he hopes to finalize a contract with city officials in time to bring the matter to a January board meeting.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@ tampabay.com.