Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Education

Pinellas unveils plans for a new middle school in St. Petersburg

LARGO — Pinellas County school officials have unveiled plans for a new St. Petersburg middle school that would open in August 2021 with involvement from the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg.

The joint facility would be located on the now-vacant site of the former Riviera Middle School, which the district closed in 2008 and later razed. The new school would cost the school district $15 million to $17 million and would have 40 classrooms with room for up to 800 students. Shared facilities between the school and the YMCA could include a gymnasium, auditorium and a pool.

The announcement came during a School Board workshop Tuesday at district headquarters. The new school site would be on 62nd Avenue N, three blocks east of First Street N.

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

David Jezek, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg, said the organization's facility connected to the school would be anywhere from 35,000 to 50,000 square feet — smaller than the Jim & Heather Gills YMCA on First Avenue S in St. Petersburg but larger than the Bardmoor YMCA.

The YMCA has a number of current and prospective donors for the joint facility, Jezek said, and fundraising wouldn't be an issue.

"I've had donors say, 'It's about time,'" he said.

The school district had planned to spend $5 million to $6 million on a 10- to 12-classroom wing to alleviate crowding at Meadowlawn Middle in 2020. That money from the school district's capital outlay budget could instead be used toward construction for the new school, said Clint Herbic, the district's associate superintendent of operational services.

Jezek said the school district could save money on sharing architects and contractors with the YMCA. But even if the school were not be built, Jezek said the YMCA still would be interested in moving forward with a new facility of its own, although officials did not have a plan to lease the land to the YMCA.

School Board member Rene Flowers, who had previously expressed reservations about the project, was unsettled by the lack of answers.

"I have no issues with Pinellas County as far as the funding piece of it. My concern is the overall project," she said. "If we don't have student base population, that's an issue. If we don't move forward and they move forward, do they have the funds to move forward on their project?"

"We've been talking about this for a year," she added. "You would think they'd have more answers."

Board members Linda Lerner and Joanne Lentino raised questions about security and access. Jezek said the facility could have separate entrances for the school and public, and YMCA members undergo background screenings through a national database.

School Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea said the board received 31 emails in favor of the joint facility, mostly from parents at North Shore and Shore Acres elementary schools.

"There's still questions that have to be answered," O'Shea said. "I think it's worth investigating and moving to the next step to see where we go with it."

Kenneth Strickland, whose twin sons will begin kindergarten at North Shore Elementary next year, said he was part of the email campaign in support of the joint facility.

He said parents in the area apply to fundamental elementary schools because they worry about eventually sending their children to an overcrowded middle school like Meadowlawn.

"Our hope in lobbying for this is to create a middle school," said Strickland, 36. "That would free up slots in fundamental programs for children from more disadvantaged neighborhoods. … We're trying to create a sense of community identity."

Superintendent Mike Grego suggested it could be a choice school rather than a zoned school, meaning families would have to apply to get in.

"This could be a partnership school parents could choose into," he said.

He also left open the possibility that the school could expand to elementary grades. The school would be designed with electrical and plumbing systems large enough for a K-8 school. But Grego cautioned: "Right now, there's not a need for that."

District officials will begin exploring possible attendance zones and building designs to define a budget, including agreements with the YMCA on how the facility and expenses would be shared.

"With today's go-ahead, we will now move forward and invest the time to explore these topics in greater depth," Herbic said.

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