Pinellas County's oldest school deserves better fate

Clearwater police assistant Debra Thoreson leaves her crossing guard post on Fort Harrison Avenue at South Ward Elementary School after  students left the 102-year-old building Tuesday. The school, the oldest in the county, will sit empty, at least for a while.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Clearwater police assistant Debra Thoreson leaves her crossing guard post on Fort Harrison Avenue at South Ward Elementary School after students left the 102-year-old building Tuesday. The school, the oldest in the county, will sit empty, at least for a while.

Parents fought long and hard for historic South Ward Elementary School in Clearwater to remain open after school district officials wanted to close it. Generations of Clearwater residents had been schooled there. Parents wondered how the school district could even consider shutting the doors.

So year after year, rather than the death knell sounding at South Ward, the school bell rang and a new school year began. The voices of excited children bounced off the high ceilings, and their feet clomped loudly on the old wood floors polished to a high gleam.

But on Tuesday, the last South Ward Elementary School student left the building. The high cost of maintaining the school and a new student assignment plan spelled the end for South Ward. As soon as administrators have concluded their end-of-year-tasks there, the lights will be turned off, the door will be locked, and a fence will be erected to secure the building and the campus. It will not operate as a school again.

Now what?

South Ward Elementary is the oldest school building in Pinellas County. Opened in 1906, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Could the school district possibly tear it down?

"Not on my watch," declared Dr. Leon Hobbs, associate superintendent for facilities and operations.

Thankfully, he is a person who values history, and we hope there are others like him in Pinellas County who will be advocates for saving the big white building at 601 S Fort Harrison Ave. in Clearwater. It would be a shame to demolish this historic structure that holds so many memories for so many residents.

Yet it isn't clear what purpose the building could serve. It would make a great school museum, but the school district has no money for such things.

"It's a luxury we can't afford right now," Hobbs said. "It would have to be done by some philanthropic group."

But these are difficult times for philanthropic groups, too.

Hobbs said the school district has made no decision about what to do with the property beyond securing it and performing basic maintenance so it doesn't become an eyesore. The district's strategic planning committee meets regularly to discuss such issues and eventually could make a recommendation about whether to keep or sell the property.

The property is valuable because it is on a major thoroughfare and close to Clearwater's developing downtown, but it would present some challenges to a new owner. There is more than 31,500 square feet of enclosed building space on the campus, including the cafeteria and media center, which are newer than the historic classroom building. The classroom building, like any historic structure, requires substantial maintenance, and it would be difficult to retrofit to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The best course of action may be just what the school district intends: seal off the building to protect it from weather and vandals, and hope that after the economy improves, someone with money and interest in saving historic structures will come forward.

Perhaps some of those who were deeply involved in the effort to save another local National Register property, the Belleview Biltmore Hotel, will step up and become advocates for preserving South Ward. The school is a treasure to the local community, and it is worth saving.

Pinellas County's oldest school deserves better fate 06/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 10, 2008 1:50pm]

    

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