Parents vent at school district meeting over fate of Lee Elementary School

ALESSANDRA DA PRA   |   Times Lee Magnet Elementary School caught fire on Sept. 12 as power was restored after Hurricane Irma..
ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times Lee Magnet Elementary School caught fire on Sept. 12 as power was restored after Hurricane Irma..
Published Jan. 12, 2018

TAMPA — Leaders of the Hillsborough County School District tried Thursday to reassure parents they are doing their best for the displaced students of Lee Elementary School, who lost their school in a September fire.

To some, it was a hard sell.

"I'm really, really disappointed in the horrible lack of communication," parent Taryn Sabia told district chief operating officer Chris Farkas.

As the district waits to hear from its insurance adjuster, Sabia said, loitering and deterioration are taking place at the historic building: "And the longer the building sits without remediation, the more deterioration there is."

As Confederate monuments fall, Tampa's Robert E. Lee Elementary could get name change (June 14)

Flames consume Robert E. Lee Elementary in Tampa Heights (w/video) (Sept. 13)

Lee Elementary, rich with history and contradictions, will move to another school (Sept. 13)

Fire Marshal: Lee Elementary fire was accidental and electrical, with storm damage a contributing factor (Oct. 4)

Media relations chief Grayson Kamm apologized for the lack of communication after Farkas told them there is nothing to communicate. The district does not yet have any estimates to repair and reopen the school.

"I'm not here to feed you a line because there isn't a number," Farkas said.

Although the school is named for Confederate general Robert E. Lee, supporters refer to it as "Lee," or "Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies & Technology."

The district was in the beginning stages of a survey about whether to change the name when, in the final hours of Hurricane Irma, Lee caught fire on Sept. 12.

The fire marshal determined high winds and rain from Irma probably whipped electrical wires in the attic. When power was restored after 48 hours of darkness, a surge likely ignited the fire. The building at 305 E Columbus Dr. had no sprinklers.

"This was an incredible trauma for everybody," said parent Barry Shalinsky. "Personally, I cried every day for a month, and I'm sure that I'm not alone."

The district moved all of the teachers and students from the small school into nearby Lockhart Elementary. Since then, it's been a matter of running two different schools in one building.

While appreciative of support from the community, Shalinsky said, "the provision of things, of paper, of pens, globes and books, that doesn't do it."

Grief counselors did not spend enough time at Lockhart, he said. Children, parents and teachers are still troubled by the sight of the burned out building.

Other speakers said sharing a campus has been difficult, as each school has its own culture. Making matters worse, Lee's guidance counselor has missed much of the school year because of health issues and the nurse has had to work at another school.

"We need to have somebody on campus to deal with these issues, these mental health issues," PTA president Jomil Frick said.

District Chief of Schools Harrison Peters said he was not immediately aware of these and other staffing issues. Then he, too, apologized: "I understand that you're hurting because we're hurting as well."

No decision has been made yet about the Lee building. It might be torn down and rebuilt completely, or the original building might be preserved. Either way, Farkas said, "we're going to be rebuilding a majority of that school."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or