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  1. Education

Community pressure leads Coleman Middle to backtrack on closing track

TAMPA — Pressure brought by angry South Tampa residents who live in neighborhoods near Coleman Middle School have led the school to temporarily reopen a track-and-field facility recently closed to the public.

Early last month, the school installed a new 6-foot chain link fence and locked a gate to stop the accumulation of broken bottles and trash, as well as vandalism to fencing and gates surrounding the complex.

The track is located between Estrella and Neptune Streets, just north of Coleman Middle School and between the city-run Interbay Pool and Mabry Elementary School.

Apparently, some residents had cut or broken through the previous fence to allow entry of golf carts and cars onto the track.

Residents are particularly angry they were not given a chance to rectify any of the school's issues. The track had been open to the public for the past 50 years.

Principal Michael Hoskinson explained in an email last week that repeated vandalism and trash left on the track endangered the school's "number one priority," the safety of its students.

On Tuesday, the school district reacted to growing pressure, not only from residents, but also from a school board member who happens to live just a few blocks from the school.

School system spokesperson Tanya Arja confirmed the track has been re-opened to the public and that a community meeting will be held to discuss a permanent solution.

During the week, the track will be open before school from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m., and after school from 4:15 p.m. until dusk.

On weekends, the track will be unlocked and available to the public from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

The only exception to this new schedule is the track will be closed to the public when the school or other sanctioned groups are using the track-and-field facility, Arja said.

"I am so upset about this," Hills­borough County School Board member Sally Harris said Tuesday morning before the school system decided to reopen the track.

Harris, who also is a past two-time president of the school's PTSA, says she was never notified by the school or the district about plans to close the track.

"This is such a strong community that has financially and physically supported that track. I just don't get why they would do this without reaching out."

According to Harris three of the neighborhoods served by the school — Beach Park, Culbreath Bayou and Culbreath Heights — have donated money and personal time over the years to maintain and improve the track, including resurfacing and painting, installing field lights and resodding the grass.

"It breaks my heart the track has a fence around it," Harris said. "I was very taken aback that as a school board member I wasn't pre-warned. I got emails, Facebook messages and even pictures of people climbing the fence."

Resident Doris Guenther frequently used the track on weekends and during the summer when the school was not in session.

"It is a safe place to exercise without fear of traffic," she said, adding that she was "very distressed" when the new fence was erected and the gates locked.

"This track has been open for families to use as long as I have been alive — this track is where I learned how to ride a bike as age 5 over 20 years ago," Kelsey Bohannan wrote in an email

Dianne Eggert, a marathoner who has frequented the track, called the track closing "disappointing".

Bliss Kohlmeyer said she and her two children use the track almost every weekend and she walks the track after dropping her children off at nearby Mabry Elementary.

"I get it. People need to be responsible if they want to use it," Kohlmeyer said, suggesting a "friends of Coleman track" group be formed to regularly pick up any trash left on the track.

Laura Mullinax said her 7-year-old son was "sad" when someone from the school told him to remove his roller blade skates and leave the track last week.

By Sunday, a group of residents met at the track to form the group, Take Back Our Track, and create a Facebook page (facebook. com/TakeBackOurTrack) in their push for the track to be re-opened.

"We want full use of the track, basketball courts and field during non-school hours/events, just like it has been for over 50 years," said organizer Cynthia Shellabarger, who lives in nearby Culbreath Heights.

By Monday, Area 1 superintendent Lisa Yost informed Shellabarger the district was working on a solution.

Tuesday, the track was reopened to the public.

Contact Sheila Mullane Estrada at