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Hillsborough district looks for rebuilding firms at Lee Elementary

Lee Elementary School caught fire as Hurricane Irma was leaving Tampa. It was blamed on an electrical surge after power was restored. There were no sprinklers. [Times Files]
Lee Elementary School caught fire as Hurricane Irma was leaving Tampa. It was blamed on an electrical surge after power was restored. There were no sprinklers. [Times Files]
Published Apr. 18, 2018
Updated Apr. 18, 2018

Despite insisting no decision has been made concerning fire-ravaged Robert E. Lee Elementary School, the Hillsborough County School District this week invited contractors to step forward if they can rebuild the school.

The district anticipates a budget of $9.3 million to $18.5 million for the school, which had slightly more than 300 students and 49 employees at the time of the Sept. 12 fire.

Information for vendors is at this link. A timetable, which includes an information session 1 p.m. on Monday  in Conference Room 242A of the Velasco Student Services Center, 1202 E. Palm Avenue, is at this link. The district is asking that all materials be submitted by 2 p.m. on April 30.

Although the notice is titled "Reconstruction on History Elementary School Site," district leaders said recently they are entertaining three options for the more than century-old school.

The first would be to restore the historic brick building. The second would be to rebuild at the same site on Columbus Avenue in Tampa Heights, using as many of the original materials as possible. The third would be to preserve the facade for use by the district or another entity, but relocate the entire school someplace else in the district. Lee has been meeting at Lockhart Elementary, about two miles away, ever since the fire.

There has been no public discussion of simply doing without the school, even though there are hundreds of vacant seats in Tampa's urban elementary schools.

When asked recently if he would consider closing or consolidating some schools as part of ongoing efforts to adjust the operational budget, Superintendent Jeff Eakins said he believes the district will need every available seat as redevelopment progresses in downtown and West Tampa. For that reason, he said, he is adding preschool programs to the under-enrolled schools.

Teachers, who are working under last year's contract and did not receive what for some would be a $4,000 raise, have stated in social media posts that they think the district should take the $9 million or more that it will get from its insurance carrier and use it to meet other expenses.

In an email, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said the bid request for Lee is intended to get an idea of available resources, in the event that the district decides to rebuild.

"This is only in preparation for whatever the superintendent recommends and the [School] Board decides to do," Arja wrote.

"This advertisement does not mean the district is going forward with a rebuild. The well thought out design professional and construction manager selection process ensures we have varied opinions and the best firm for each project; however, the process is time consuming. In advertising this possible project, we allow the timeline to start, select a firm specializing in historical rebuilds, while not expending any money."

On Jan. 29, district officials said they had hired an engineering and construction team to prepare a report that would counter the insurer's offer of $9.2 million. They expected that process to take a month. The Times requested the report but was told Wednesday that it has not yet arrived.

District leaders said previously that they will seek public input at a meeting before issuing a recommendation to the School Board.

Also unresolved is the explosive issue of Lee's name. The school was named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose image was removed in recent years from schools and monuments throughout the South. Supporters of the school say that, despite the lettering on the building facade, it has been known simply as "Lee" for more than a decade.

The school's supporters include residents of Tampa Heights, who have appeared before City Council and say the school is a vital asset to their community.