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Plan to reopen two Pinellas elementary schools gains support

ST. PETE BEACH — Where once there was life at Gulf Beaches Elementary, there are weeds: weeds coming up through the hallways, and all through the flower beds, and in the parking lot spaces reserved for people who have not parked there in half a decade.

When Bill Emener looks out the back windows of his home he sees blue water. When he looks out the front he sees the shuttered school. "It's a shame for it to just sit there," says the 70-year-old retiree, smoking a cigarette on his porch across the street.

St. Pete Beach residents and city officials say they support a proposal from Pinellas County school administrators to reopen Gulf Beaches Elementary, the only public school on the barrier islands when it closed in 2009. The plan spearheaded by superintendent Michael Grego, which also calls for the revival of Clearwater's Kings Highway Elementary, received initial support from the School Board on Thursday.

District officials said they don't know of another instance when a school was closed, then reopened.

The schools no longer would be neighborhood schools — rather, technology magnets drawing students from throughout the area. But school officials said they expected to reserve some seats for applicants who live nearby.

When closing the schools in 2009, "We isolated people geographically in this county. We have whole areas where we have no schools," said School Board member Peggy O'Shea. "When we have no schools, the community goes away."

Board members, many of whom were serving then, doubled-down on their decision to close the schools. Gulf Beaches was an "A" school, but under-enrolled, when they voted to close it.

"In the economy of 2008, I think we did what we had to do at the time," said School Board member Robin Wikle.

St. Pete Beach Mayor Steve McFarlin and City Manager Mike Bonfield both said they had not spoken to the school district about Gulf Beaches, but immediately supported reopening the school after reading about the plans in the newspaper. They also have backed plans for a charter school, Academy by the Sea, which hopes to locate in St. Pete Beach.

"Any school back on our beaches would be great," McFarlin said. "A lot of people have a perception of our city as being a resort city, which it is, but it's also highly concentrated with residential development. Thousands of hotel employees have their children here. . . . They don't want to have to send their kids far away, where they can't be involved in the schools."

Bonfield pointed to the active after-school program at St. Pete Beach's recreation center. "We have to go to Azalea (Elementary) and Pasadena Fundamental to pick them up now," he said. Reopening Gulf Beaches "would be easier for residents."

Grego has cited this kind of resource pooling as a reason to reopen Kings Highway, where there could be space for nine or 10 prekindergarten classrooms that would serve children zoned for several other Clearwater elementaries.

Michael Bessette, the district's director of operations, said both schools are in good shape, though some work remained. He expected to have an estimate for the renovations in January.

On Friday, a stripped-down sailboat occupied three spaces in the Gulf Beaches parking lot. The playground equipment had been uprooted, and the paint had faded on the school's blue sign. A phone book wrapped in plastic sat by the front door.

"I think it'd be good for the neighborhood, especially for crime, because there might be an increased police presence," said Julie Sanders, 60, who lives next to Emener, across from the school.

Sanders also thought a school could bring up property values, since more families would be interested in living nearby. But mostly, she said, "I feel so bad for the kids."

From her porch she can see groups of them waiting on the corner, sometimes for a very long time, for school buses to take them off the island. "There's this one boy, down by Sweetbay, who waits forever."

Emener, who has lived across from Gulf Beaches for 12 years, said he misses seeing the "full cross-section of life" — children and young families among the retirees and vacationers.

"It was fun to see the kids," he said, "and to hear the young voices."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

Plan to reopen two Pinellas elementary schools gains support 12/14/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 14, 2013 8:58pm]
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