ST. PETERSBURG — Cheri Shannon was driving through the neighborhoods of Midtown last July when she spotted a building that made her stop the car.
Shannon is not from the area. She was looking to start a charter school to serve low-income minority children. And she had landed in the 33705 ZIP code and was staring at an empty, unfamiliar building.
She wrote down the address. It was the former home of Southside Fundamental Middle School, on 10th Street at 17th Avenue S.
"It's the perfect location. It just resonated with where we want to be, the partnership that could occur with the library right there," Shannon said.
The James Weldon Johnson Branch of the library system is a stone's throw away, at 1059 18th Ave. S.
"It could really be a hub for community development."
Shannon was navigating unfamiliar waters. The Pinellas County School Board has never approved the sale of property to a charter school.
Yet a few months later, Shannon and the School Board are looking at appraisals and drawing up a contract.
University Preparatory Academy plans to open this fall to 570 students in kindergarten through the seventh grade. University Prep also would like to open a high school in Pinellas and expand to Hillsborough and Broward counties, where they've already been approved.
Drawing on the model of a school Shannon opened in Kansas City, Mo., University Prep would have an extended school day and school year. It also would segregate boys and girls in their academic classes, based on research that the sexes learn differently.
The Pinellas School Board approved University Prep's charter months ago. But becoming the owner of the former Southside Fundamental Middle site has proven trickier.
Other charter schools have wanted to purchase former school sites, but none got as far as contract negotiations, school system spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra says. In one case, the school district had other plans for the property.
Still, there have been snags with this deal. Superintendent Michael Grego and the School Board planned to negotiate a contract at a workshop last week. But University Prep didn't get an appraisal of the property to the board's attorney until the night before the workshop.
Then there's the matter of price. University Prep is offering about $700,000 for the Southside Fundamental property, but the school system's estimates range from $775,000 to $1.4 million. The school was built in 1926.
Under a 2010 settlement in a lawsuit on behalf of Pinellas black students, the board agreed to try to create 500 new charter school seats in predominantly black neighborhoods within five years.
That doesn't make the Southside sale a done deal, though, as School Board Attorney David Koperski points out: The 500 seats is just a goal and could be met through a different charter than University Prep.
Still, board members appear amenable to the sale. At a recent meeting, they voted to allow Shannon to begin an environmental impact study.
At Tuesday's workshop, board member Peggy O'Shea chatted with Shannon by the elevators about which floor of the Southside building she would move into first.
Lisa Gartner can be reached at [email protected]