Communities often feel a deep attachment to old school buildings, even long after students move on to newer schools. But Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego knows that in today's school funding environment, sentimentality must take a back seat to practicality. It costs real money for the school district to secure and maintain empty schools — money that should instead serve students. So last week Grego recommended, and the School Board approved, selling one of the county's oldest school buildings, North Ward Secondary School in St. Petersburg, to an entrepreneur. If the sale is completed after a 45-day due diligence period, the school district will get a cash infusion of almost $2 million.
Grego said that when he was hired in October 2012, the district was maintaining 15 closed schools, many of them more than 50 years old and some considered historic. The School Board gave him permission to try to sell, lease or reuse the sites, and the list is now down to four.
Grego's goal was to find uses that had an educational purpose or would serve the community. A few will reopen as special theme schools or charters; others are being sold or leased for community-based uses.
North Ward, built in 1914 and closed in 2008, sits on less than an acre at Fourth Street and 11th Avenue N. The two-story building is too old now to be used as a school, yet the property, which borders a commercial corridor, is valuable. The school district advertised the property for sale.
St. Petersburg Preservation, a local group devoted to preserving and restoring historic sites, feared that the school would be torn down and the property turned into another bank or gas station. The group sought city historic landmark status for the property from the St. Petersburg City Council, arguing that it qualified because of its age, its place in the city's history and its location, on the edge of the Old Northeast National Register Historic District. Though the neighborhood and the city staff supported the designation, the school district objected and the City Council turned it down.
The preservation group is hopeful, though, that the buyer will follow through on a pledge to save at least the old two-story portion. Michael Kingsford, principal with GLI Development LLC of New York City, plans to create a "food-centric, mini-destination" that sells Florida-produced food and other products. Kingsford, 57, whose background is in real estate and real estate financing, moved to St. Petersburg from Manhattan six years ago and said he has been looking for a fun project. His business partner is Glenn Larkan, a South African developer who lives in Manhattan.
During the same meeting last week, the School Board approved leasing South Ward Elementary, a closed school more than a century old near downtown Clearwater, to the nonprofit Clearwater Historical Society for $1 a year for 50 years. The group plans to open a Clearwater history museum, and under the agreement must include an area that will focus on the history of Pinellas schools. The historical society will be responsible for maintaining the school campus and insuring it, relieving the school district of that burden.
Grego has the right idea. Finding productive uses for old, shuttered schools is the best way to protect them and continue their stories, while also returning dollars to the district to pay for the many needs of today's students.