NEW PORT RICHEY — Kurt Conover sat quietly on a shaded bench Tuesday morning and watched as a parade of dignitaries gathered to begin the long-awaited reconstruction of Richey Elementary School.
He welcomed the progress that the two-year project will bring to the school and community. At the same time, he reflected on the history that Richey represented.
"It feels like it was just being built, even though it was built a long time ago" said Conover, 60, who had also watched the original school rise in 1957 before attending when it opened later that year. It cost $250,000.
He talked about climbing the mulberry trees that surrounded the school, pulling sandspurs along the paths. He recalled helping carry textbooks to Richey from the old Pierce Elementary seven blocks away, then taking classes there and later returning to work at the summer playground program.
"The school and I go a long way back," said Conover, now the marketing director at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
Over time, though, the school has aged, and not always so gracefully. It floods in some corners, sags in others. The wiring for the latest educational technology is sorely lacking.
Renovation, it turned out, was not a viable option.
In 2009, a state analysis found that the cost to remodel and upgrade Richey would surpass the $15.6 million price tag of a total replacement. So the School Board began plans to raze the old and put in new, with an architectural nod to the red brick look of the historic Pierce Elementary (now the city library) and Gulf High (now Schwettman Education Center).
"We are going to keep the history of New Port Richey alive through the building," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said.
That's important, longtime teacher John Yerke said, because the community has strong feelings for its school, which for years has served as a focal point for neighbors and friends.
"Why do people love it?" Yerke asked. "It's not the buildings. It's the people."
He spoke of the cafeteria workers who know kids' favorite snacks, the custodians who work hard to keep the school spotless and the always smiling office staff, not to mention the dedicated educators and administrators.
"This building is really going to have great memories for me," said Yerke, who has worked at Richey for 16 years. "But we're really, really ready and excited for this new school."
It will be a year before the first phase of construction — a new main classroom building, administration and media center — is ready for students and teachers. Many will attend classes in 18 portables on the campus until that time.
Once the first part is done, the district will tear down the remainder of Richey and replace it, too.
Fourth-grader Mackenzie Caraway, whose dad teaches at the school, said she's thrilled and nervous about the changes.
On the one hand, she said, "I know every room and I know almost every kid." She'll have to learn how to get around all over again.
She'll also miss the school butterfly garden, which the architects have promised to restore in the end.
On the other hand, Mackenzie said she's "super excited" about getting a nice, new playground, for which the school is collecting donations, and also a comfortable place to learn.
"It will be drier on rainy days and cooler on hot days," the 9-year-old said.
School Board member Steve Luikart, who was in second grade when Richey opened, remembered when the school was the only place in town to gather that had a large, air conditioned space available. That alone made it a community center, he said.
It was a time when businessmen on Main Street would come out of their shops to ask passing schoolkids how their day had gone, Luikart, 60, recalled.
"When I came through here, it was a whole community. Everybody was involved," he said. "I still think this has the same atmosphere as it did back then."
The student body has changed, though. In the 1950s, it drew from a much wider area of western Pasco County. "Richey was the only school," said Ellen Holeman, who was in third grade when the school opened. "Kids came all the way from Hudson."
But in the 1970s, Richey became a fundamental school, one that parents fought to get their children into. It was the county's only nonneighborhood school, and it logged in the district's top academic results.
City Council member Judy DeBella-Thomas said her husband sat outside the school on a beach chair overnight one year to guarantee their daughter a coveted spot.
"There were only so many seats," DeBella-Thomas said. "It was an excellent school at that time. We felt it was critical that she get in the school to get the quality education that she needed."
Now it's a neighborhood school, serving a smaller area. It receives extra federal money for its high percentage of low-income students. The school has continued to excel academically after some tough years.
Holeman, a retired Pasco teacher, expected Richey to maintain its strong spirit even as it goes through its reconstruction and beyond.
Terry Spencer, who attended Richey in the early 1960s, admitted to having mixed feelings when she first learned of plans to raze her old school.
"It's been such a centerpiece of the community," said Spencer, 57, a local veterinarian.
She reminisced about principal Fred Marchman and his wife, Marguerite, who was the school's librarian. She remembered a small community where parents knew teachers and vice versa, and people watched out for one another. Many friendships forged at Richey, Spencer said, and they've migrated to Facebook, where lately they've been sharing old school photos and telling Richey stories.
Despite all that, she said, "I was also excited when I saw the drawings. It's time that some of the older schools in the county get some attention."
The school district recently has committed to several such projects. It is rebuilding Pasco High and Pasco Middle, and has razed Sanders Elementary with plans to erect a new one as student population grows in the Land O'Lakes area.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.