Monday, December 18, 2017
Education

Pinellas votes to take over failed St. Petersburg charter school, at least for one year

LARGO — University Preparatory Academy, a failed charter school in south St. Petersburg, will officially reopen as a district-run school called Midtown Academy this fall, sparing 400 students from having to relocate just two weeks before classes begin.

The Pinellas County School Board approved the move 6-1 Tuesday evening, also okaying the appointment of Portia Slaughter as the school's new principal. Slaughter, previously an assistant principal at Tarpon Springs High, is 14-year veteran of the school district.

Superintendent Mike Grego, who approached the board at a workshop last week with a plan to take over the school, praised the board and district staff for their hustle in negotiating a lease and beginning the process of hiring staff within one week. Officials learned the charter school would face closure earlier this month after the school received its third consecutive F grade from the state.

"We've done an amazing job in one week to date and I am just in awe of the work and the progress and the focus of the children and the community," Grego said.

Pinellas officials and the school's landlord, CA Tampa Bay 1701 10S LLC, have agreed that the district will pay property insurance on the school instead of rent for year, a sum not to exceed $90,000. After that, the school district could buy the property for $7.6 million, according a negotiated lease.

Board member Linda Lerner, the lone dissenter, took issue with the price tag and wanted to know how negotiators arrived at that figure. She worried about the viability of the school beyond one year.

"I have a hard time approving it like this with that number there, without knowing anything about it," she said, reiterating that she supported the school, but not the lease.

School Board Attorney David Koperski tried to reassure Lerner that the board would need to obtain appraisals if the district chose to buy the property and cannot pay more than the price on the appraisal.

University Preparatory Academies Inc. bought the school at 1701 10th St. S — formerly Southside Fundamental Middle — for $1.1 million in 2013. Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said the charter poured about $6.5 million into renovating the building. He defended the listed price of the school.

"If we were going to build a new elementary school somewhere, we would spend far more," he said, referring to the $19 million the district plans to spend for a new Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg.

The landlord's asking price is double what the district offered to pay for the property that housed Windsor Preparatory Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy, two St. Petersburg charter schools that closed this summer because of financial, curriculum and governance issues. The district attempted to absorb the schools, but said it could only pay $3.5 million for the property.

Corbett said Windsor Prep and East Windsor needed major renovations to bring the facilities up to required standards, while University Prep's building was up to code because it was an old district school.

After its regular meeting Tuesday, the School Board unanimously approved a preliminary 2016-17 tax rate of $7.32 for every $1,000 of taxable value. That's down from last year's rate of $7.77, although total property tax revenue for the district would rise by $4.3 million because of increased property values.

Board members also tentatively approved a $1.5 billion budget for 2016-17. They will take a final vote on the tax rate and budget at a public hearing in September.

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