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  1. Education

Proposed charter school wants to lease old North Ward Elementary campus

CLEARWATER — Someone has an eye on Clearwater's favorite little red brick school.

Officials with the Pinellas School of Math and Science, a proposed charter school, last week toured the closed campus of the former North Ward Elementary School and told district leaders they are interested in leasing the facility for up to 15 years.

Michael Bessette, associate superintendent of facilities and operations for the district, said that if it appears likely the Pinellas County School Board will approve the charter school, he will talk with board members about their interest in a possible leasing arrangement.

But there are many issues the board still needs to work out, not the least of which is whether they're ready to lease — and whether they're ready to lease to charter schools.

Though hesitant to sell off their district land holdings in a down market, School Board members said they want to hear more in March from Bessette and superintendent John Stewart about the possibility of leasing.

"What I would like to do is have those buildings occupied," Bessette told board members, "because they're deteriorating and costing us money."

North Ward was a 300-student-capacity school on N Fort Harrison Avenue north of downtown Clearwater. Though parents and alumni fought to keep it open, North Ward was one of several campuses closed in 2009 due to declining district enrollment and funding concerns.

Built in 1915 overlooking Clearwater Harbor, North Ward was appraised last year at up to $1.3 million.

"That is one of the most valuable properties," board member Janet Clark said, adding that she is definitely not ready to sell it now.

Sirin Coskun, a math professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is one of the leaders working on hammering out a charter school agreement with the district.

She told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday that, at this point, the school hopes to serve about 600 students in grades K-8, with the possibility of expanding to up to 1,000 through 12th grade.

Bessette said, however, that the charter school would have to be much smaller if it planned to fit at the tiny North Ward campus.

"There's no way with class-size (requirements) for that to happen," he said.

The proposed school should not be confused with the Pinellas Academy of Math and Science, which has a board-approved charter and already has a site. Coskun said leaders of her proposed school are considering a name change to avoid mix-ups.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at or (727) 893-8707. To submit a letter to the editor, go to