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Some calling for selloff of Pinellas schools' land holdings

The 15 acres of grass where Riviera Middle School used to be is a developer's dream. Snuggled up to a golf course. Studded with oaks and palms. A two-minute bike ride from the waterfront.

It also happens to be owned by the Pinellas County School District. So as the district talks furloughs and layoffs, people ask again and again:

Why don't they sell it?

"They can't boo-hoo their money issues when they're sitting on a ginormous parcel of land," said Katy Cleary, whose family will be affected by budget cuts if the School Board changes start times at her son's school.

Across Pinellas, the same question comes up over the district's 21 other closed or vacant properties.

The district's response: Land is hard to come by in Florida's most urbanized county. We'd be irresponsible if we didn't bank some of it for future needs. And we're not going to burn taxpayers by selling it dirt cheap.

"Unfortunately, right now it's not a seller's market," said board member Robin Wikle, who co-owned a real estate company for 17 years. "We owe it to (taxpayers) to sell it for what it's worth."

The district's cache of closed and vacant properties totals 287 acres. It ranges from a 1-acre, shuttered school just north of downtown St. Petersburg to a 43-acre chunk at East Lake and Keystone roads in Tarpon Springs. Some have been closed or vacant for years. Others were added after a spasm of budget cuts. Gulf Beaches Elementary, on 4.7 acres in St. Pete Beach, is on the list. So is 22 acres of woods behind McMullen-Booth Elementary in Clearwater.

Associate superintendent Michael Bessette, who oversees the district's real estate, said the district is new to the process of selling its holdings. It's only recently that demographic changes — and steep drops in state funding — have forced the district to close schools instead of open them. But the School Board has been putting its toe in the water.

Earlier this year it established a formal process for selling or leasing board-owned land. And at a recent workshop, it agreed to let staff order appraisals on two small properties that have attracted interest: the Euclid Center, a former elementary school in St. Petersburg, and the recently closed North Ward Elementary in Clearwater.

The figures are expected within a few weeks. If they're not so hot, staff will get more direction from the board. If they're okay, the district will see if developers want to pursue them.

"I'm hoping to be extremely delighted," Bessette said.

The appraisals may help determine how willing the board is to open other parcels for sale. But some are likely to remain in district hands no matter how much developers, or the public, clamor for a shot.

Since last summer, superintendent Julie Janssen has recommended reopening two elementary schools — Kings Highway in Clearwater and Gulf Beaches — and converting them to fundamental schools. (The board said no, for now.) Meanwhile, a charter school group headed by former St. Petersburg city administrator Goliath Davis is making a pitch to lease the former Southside Fundamental Middle School.

"We owe it to our future students to guard those assets," Wikle said, referring to board-owned properties in general. Student enrollment has declined since 2004 "but we don't know what it's going to be three or four years from now," she said.

The sprawling field at East Lake and Keystone roads is one the district wants to hold, Bessette said. So is the "Manning Road Site," a 15-acre spread of woods and wildflowers in Palm Harbor.

So is Riviera. The school was closed in 2008 because of budget cuts and torn down because it was in such bad shape.

"That's our only large piece of property in St. Petersburg that we could ever rebuild on if we need to," Bessette said.

Realtor Tom Young said two or three developers are interested in the site, which he said can hold 150 apartments. He guessed it could fetch $1.3 million to $1.5 million.

Not as good as the $2 million to $2.3 million it might have brought at the height of the boom five years ago. But not bad for a school district in a hole, he said.

The district has been aiming to cut $60 million from next year's budget.

"I'm tired of hearing them whine about the deficits," Young said. "When you've got a whole bunch of money sitting there, and you're not willing to sell, something's wrong."

During public budget forums in March, citizens suggested multiple times that the district sell unused property. The idea came up again last week at a Pinellas Education Foundation retreat.

Supporters of selling say maintenance and upkeep costs are another reason to unload.

According to the district, it cost $657,902 for maintenance and utilities at 13 closed schools in 2009-10. The same schools have cost $285,144 so far this year.

Costs were higher last year because most of those schools had been closed in 2009, and there are one-time costs for closing a school such as removing equipment and securing it with fencing, Bessette said.

The only cost for Riviera is for mowing, he said.

Janssen's most recent budget proposal released Thursday lists $2 million in savings from sale of property but does not give details or identify any parcels.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

.Fast facts

Here are some of the properties the Pinellas County School District owns:

Vacant

• Belcher Road site, 12000 Belcher Road, Largo

39 acres

• Wilcox Road site, north of Wilcox, west of Vonn Road, Largo

30 acres

• Keystone Road site, SE corner East Lake and Keystone roads, Tarpon Springs

43 acres

• Manning Road site, east of County Road 1 and north of Curlew Road, Palm Harbor

15 acres

• McMullen-Booth site, west of McMullen-Booth Road, south of Union Street, Clearwater

22 acres

Closed schools

• Clearview Avenue Elementary, 3815 43rd St. N, St. Petersburg

Upkeep: $78,000 (2009-10); $26,210 (2010-11)

• Kings Highway Elementary, 1715 Kings Highway, Clearwater

Upkeep: $90,341 (2009-10); $75,162 (2010-11)

• North Ward Elementary, 900 N Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater

Upkeep: $75,689 (2009-10); $24,936 (2010-11)

• North Ward Secondary, 327 11th Ave. N., St. Petersburg

Upkeep: $6,320 (2009-10); $3,415 (2010-11)

• Norwood Elementary, 2154 27th Ave. N, St. Petersburg

Upkeep: $6,865 (2009-10): $5,811 (2010-11)

• Palm Harbor Elementary, 415 15th St.

Upkeep: $78,990 (2009-10); $23,071 (2010-11)

• Rio Vista Elementary, 8131 Macoma Drive NE, St. Petersburg

Upkeep: $109,126 (2009-10); $39,225 (2010-11)

• South Ward Elementary, 610 S Fort Harrison Ave. Clearwater

Upkeep: $20,361 (2009-10); $21,069 (2010-11)

• Southside Fundamental, 1701 10th St.t S, St. Petersburg

Upkeep: $150,323 (2009-10); $8,595 (2010-11)

Source: Pinellas County Public Schools

Some calling for selloff of Pinellas schools' land holdings 05/23/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 12:55am]

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