Communities often feel a deep attachment to old school buildings, even long after students have moved on to newer schools. But 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 be serving students. So last week Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego recommended, and the School Board approved, leasing one of the county's oldest remaining school buildings, the former South Ward Elementary near downtown Clearwater, to the nonprofit Clearwater Historical Society. Under the 50-year agreement, the historical society will maintain and insure the property on S Fort Harrison Avenue, relieving the School District of that expensive burden.
Grego said that when he was hired in October 2012, the district was maintaining 15 closed school sites, 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 either 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. The plan for South Ward certainly fulfills that later purpose.
The 4,000-square-foot building at the front of the South Ward site is more than a century old and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The school opened in 1906 and closed in 2008. Now, it will have a second life as a museum.
The Clearwater Historical Society, which occupies cramped space in the historic Plumb House, has been looking for a place to expand. The several buildings on the South Ward campus total 20,000 square feet. The historical society envisions it as a roomy location for a Clearwater history museum that will also tell the history of the Clearwater Bombers, a national champion fast-pitch softball team that played from 1940 to 2000. Under the lease agreement, the group will also reserve room to tell the history of the Pinellas County School District and provide community meeting space.
Maintaining such a large site while also creating and operating a museum will be a challenge for the society, which doesn't have a big bank account and will have to do fundraising. The lease has an early termination/buyout clause after 15 years should either side want to end the agreement.
During the same meeting last week, the School Board also approved the sale of the former North Ward Secondary School in St. Petersburg for $1.9 million. Built in 1914 and closed in 2008, the school sits on less than an acre of land at the intersection of Fourth Street N and 11th Avenue N, overlooking a commercial corridor and on the edge of the Old Northeast National Register Historic District. The buyer, Michael Kingsford of GLI Development LLC in New York City, lives in St. Petersburg and envisions a "food-centric, mini-destination" market there specializing in Florida-produced food and other products. He pledges he'll try to save the old two-story building.
Grego has the right idea. Finding productive uses for shuttered schools is the best way to protect them and continue their stories, while returning dollars to the district to help pay for the many needs of today's students.