1. Education

District will rebuild Lee Elementary, burned in fire, if School Board approves

Lee Elementary in Tampa, vacant since a fire in September 2017, could be rebuilt under a proposal made public Friday by Hillsborough County school officials. [JAMES BORCHUK | Times]
Published Oct. 5, 2018

TAMPA — A beloved 100-year-old school that weathered controversy over its name and last year suffered a raging fire will be rebuilt, subject to a vote by the Hillsborough County School Board.

District officials say they will bring a plan to the board Oct. 16 to reopen Lee Elementary at its original location, 305 E Columbus Drive in Tampa Heights.

RELATED: Firefighters battle to save Robert E. Lee Elementary in Tampa Heights

Contractors will preserve the school's red brick exterior walls, spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. The inside will be redesigned to comply with modern building standards, with wider hallways and a larger cafeteria and media center.

Lee, the district's first magnet school, offers programs in technology and world studies. Since the September 2017 fire, its student body of slightly more than 300 has been meeting at nearby Lockhart Elementary.

Lee was engulfed in flames at the tail end of Hurricane Irma, which caused an area-wide power outage. In the early evening, when power returned, an electrical surge is believed to have sparked the blaze.

The building had no fire sprinklers, and its electric wiring was housed in a wood-frame attic.

Fire investigators speculated that Irma's heavy rains and wind whipped the wire casings so violently, the system was vulnerable when the power came on. The roof, which was compromised, had two decorative cupolas that provided ventilation and helped spread the flames.

Rescue teams had to pour more than 850,000 gallons of water into the building to extinguish the fire, which was still smoldering more than 12 hours later, district leaders said. "Water damage to the interior was extensive and irreversible," they wrote in a statement Friday.

Originally called the Michigan Avenue Grammar School, the school was given the name of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in 1943. Supporters, including a fiercely loyal parent group, say that for more than a decade, the school has simply been called "Lee."

Despite the rebranding, Lee incurred criticism in 2015 and 2016, when many Southern cities began to dismantle monuments to the Confederacy. The school district was contemplating a renaming when the fire struck.

More than a year of insurance negotiations followed, with the district rejecting a $9.2 million offer in January that it considered "low-ball."

Under the scenario described Friday, money will be paid directly to Fleischmann-Garcia Architects and Planners, and JE Dunn Construction, a team the board hired at its last meeting on Tuesday.

The district's insurance carrier will pay the full cost, but only if the school is rebuilt, officials said Friday. If the district chose not to build, it would receive about 10 percent of the insurance money, to cover lost classroom materials and equipment.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.


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