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  1. Education

Building boom: Pinellas is spending millions to update nine schools around the county

With more than $158 million in projects under way or about to start, the Pinellas County school district is making what it says is an unprecedented push for improvements.

The Pinellas County school district has embarked on what officials say is an unprecedented number of simultaneous renovation projects on campuses across the county.

Work totaling $158.5 million at nine schools varies from plumbing and electrical updates to new space for music students and athletes. Some projects are already complete while more will begin over the summer break.

Pinellas Park Middle School, St. Petersburg High, Melrose Elementary and Pinellas Technical College in Clearwater will see the most change, district leaders say. All but one project is funded by on-hand cash rather than borrowed money, according to associate superintendent Clint Herbic.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "We wanted to jump on the biggest, more challenging projects first because … when you get those done, you have an entire school feeling a positive impact."

Here is a breakdown of what's happening where — and how much it all costs:

Pinellas Park Middle

The biggest chunk of construction funding this year went to a "campus renewal" at this mid-county school, where about half of $35 million in planned renovations are complete.

The work has been under way for months, Herbic said. Aging buildings on the east side of campus were gutted so new classrooms could be built inside.

One of the renovated buildings opened in the fall and students moved into a second on Jan. 8, he said. A new wing for exceptional education students, administrative offices and a media center will be complete within a few months.

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St. Petersburg High

Big changes are coming to this historic school, built in 1926, where construction crews will work to preserve unique features, Herbic said.

Work totaling $32.8 million will include a new roof, updated heating and air conditioning systems, electrical wiring, plumbing and paint. There also will be a new cafeteria and courtyard where students will be able to eat lunch.

New spaces for art, band and chorus students will be added adjacent to the cafeteria. Those groups have been "squeezed for some time," Herbic said, and school district leaders felt it was time to give them the room they need.

The school's front doors off Fifth Avenue N will be reestablished as the main entrance, Herbic said, and the original terra cotta flooring will be restored. The district is working to secure grants to fund those parts of the project.

St. Petersburg High will be the last high school campus in Pinellas to get a rubberized track, principal Darlene Lebo said. And it will be the first to have an artificial turf football field.

An alumni group has raised about $200,000 to boost the district's work at the football stadium. Details are still being worked out, Lebo said, but the funds could go toward new concession stands, restrooms and a scoreboard.

"It's been a while since anything has really happened here at St. Pete High School," the principal said, referring to campus improvements. "It's nice to know that we are getting some updates and that the district is putting a good amount of money into it."

Melrose Elementary

When construction is complete at Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg, nearly the entire school will be new, Herbic said.

First-year principal Donnika Jones said the plans have created lots of excitement among students and their families, who have worked hard in recent years to turn around the struggling school.

"This is not just uplifting to the spirit of our scholars … it is also a pivotal turning point in our community," she said. "It is gifting them a stronger buy-in to the education that they get here."

Construction at Melrose will happen in phases, Herbic said, allowing students to move into new buildings as they are completed. The $26 million allocated to the school will also cover a new playground, new furniture and updated technology, he added.

Pinellas Technical College, Clearwater

The school district will spend $20.2 million renovating buildings on this campus, where many high school students take free dual-enrollment classes to earn college credit.

Herbic said most existing buildings there were saved but significantly updated to "give it a more college campus feel."

Tarpon Springs High

The school district will spend $15.9 million creating new spaces and better drainage for areas on campus prone to flooding.

Herbic said drainage work and construction of a new courtyard are nearly complete, and builders are refocusing efforts on creating new classrooms for students in music programs.

Lakewood High

Widespread construction has been under way for some time at this St. Petersburg campus but was set back by a September fire in the gym.

Firefighters never determined the cause of the blaze, though investigators suspect arson, principal Erin Savage said. Normally, security cameras in the gym would have been on but were not operating at the time due to construction, she added.

Still, Herbic expects renovations in and around the gym will be complete by the end of the school year. They include a new entrance, lobby, concession stand and bathrooms, as well as a new weight-lifting and wrestling rooms.

Other pieces of the $8.9 million overhaul are already complete, like renovations in the front office and attached adult education center, Savage said. In addition, the auditorium now has a new lobby, as well as a new ceiling and flooring.

One of the biggest updates for students is a courtyard near the cafeteria on the east side of campus. Its clear ceiling gives students a unique and sunny new space to eat lunch, Savage said.

"It has really opened up that area," the principal added. "It's exciting. We can't wait for everything to be complete."

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education.

Bardmoor Elementary

The school district has pumped $8.2 million into Bardmoor, splitting the campus' open-concept into individual classrooms.

Herbic said the Seminole school was originally "built without walls" separating the classrooms. The district will hold a ribbon cutting to celebrate its new layout on Jan. 25.

Cypress Woods Elementary

The district plans to spend $5.8 million at the Palm Harbor campus to replace 10 portables with a new building housing 12 classrooms, Herbic said.

Orange Grove Elementary

A building identical to the one planned for Cypress Woods will be erected at Seminole's Orange Grove, where the district will spend $5.7 million.

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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