ST. PETE BEACH — City officials here are determined to keep Gulf Beaches Elementary School open.
"Gulf Beaches is the only school on the barrier island," says Commissioner Linda Chaney. "If the school is closed, our children face an hourlong ride over three drawbridges. That's a long day for small children and is clearly detrimental to our community."
Despite the Pinellas County School Board's decision Tuesday to close the school, she said the commission hopes it can be converted to a charter school.
They hope enough residents, particularly those with school-age children, feel the same way.
In an attempt to generate that support, the commission has scheduled an open house for Jan. 28 at the Community Center, at 7701 Boca Ciega Drive, and invited representatives of Imagine School at St. Petersburg to describe their charter school program.
Arlington, Va.-based Imagine Schools operates 18 charter schools in Florida, including the one in St. Petersburg, and another 56 throughout the country.
The program specializes in the arts and science, environment, single gender, Chinese language, careers, International Baccalaureate and an elementary program called Project Child.
In Project Child, clusters of students and teachers work together for three years so that students can stay with the same teacher to better meet their needs and maximize teaching time.
Chaney said that enough families must want the charter school before the organization would be willing to approach the School Board for approval.
"If the parents aren't interested, there is no reason to talk to the School Board," Chaney said.
Charter schools are essentially free schools open to the public but operated by private organizations. The school system loses state per-child money for those students enrolled. That money is given to the charter school operator.
Chaney acknowledges that the Pinellas County school system is unlikely to want Gulf Beaches to become a charter school because the reason for closing it is to save money.
Gulf Beaches is one of seven small schools the School Board decided to close in an attempt to plug a budget deficit that is approaching $40-million and could surged to the $60- to $80-million range.
Chaney said the school system must be willing to lease the Gulf Beaches building at a "reasonable rate" for the charter program to be economically viable.
She is concerned that because Gulf Beaches Elementary is on "valuable property" on Blind Pass Road it might be sold to generate revenue for the school system.
The land the school sits on was donated to the school system years ago. The original deed restricts its use to the surrounding neighborhood. Chaney questioned whether the property could be sold or if it would revert to the original property owners if it is no longer used for a school.
In a written opinion, the School Board attorney has said the property belongs to the school system.
"The county school system considers the property theirs and views it as an asset," Chaney said.