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Friday, Aug 22, 2014
Pinellas News

Charter school eyes former St. Pete Beach police station

Tribune correspondent
Published:
ST. PETE BEACH -

Months after Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies took over patrolling this beach community, city leaders are trying to decide what to do with the former police station.

The St. Pete Beach Police Department’s squad cars are gone, but the building at 200 76th Ave. still bears characteristics of its past life, including holding cells.

Academy by the Sea, a prospective Montessori charter school for fourth- through eighth-graders, has offered to lease the old police station, which has remained empty since January when the police department disbanded and the city started contracting with the sheriff’s office for law enforcement services.

City commissioners for the first time discussed the future of the building thisv week and are scheduled to do so again on June 25.

In February, commissioners unanimously passed a resolution supporting the school’s creation, without considering a possible location.

Academy by the Sea is finalizing its application with the Pinellas County school district for charter school status. If approved, the academy would become the only public school in St. Pete Beach since Gulf Beaches Elementary School closed in 2009. School leaders hope to open in August 2014.

Academy by the Sea’s board members originally looked at the empty Gulf Beaches Elementary building, but school district officials said they are not leasing any vacant schools, said Wendy Savage, who is on the 10-member board that for 1½ years has led efforts to start the charter school.

Board members think the former police building would serve the school well — at least initially, Savage said.

“We actually thought it was a really great stage for the school,” said Savage, a part-time lawyer who has two children, ages 7 and 9, who attend Montessori by the Sea in St. Pete Beach. “It’s a very secure facility, and with all of the concerns with student safety, that would be great.”

The property has a field that could be used for physical education and rooms that would work for small classes. Its proximity to the city’s recreation center, park and swimming pool would benefit after-school programs.

City Manager Mike Bonfield, however, said there are potential problems with using the building for a school. Constructed in the early 1990s, the building might need a fire alarm system and other changes to accommodate a school, changes the school likely would need to fund.

“There are just a lot of issues on our end that we have to consider,” Bonfield said. “It’s an idea that is certainly worth considering, and we hope that if they can’t locate there, they can locate somewhere else in the city.”

Another option for the old police building is moving City Hall into it and leasing the extra space to businesses. That would put City Hall within a cluster of other city facilities and would generate rental income for the city, but it might take longer to find and accommodate tenants, city Commissioner Jim Parent said.

Converting the old police station into office space also would require costly refurbishing. Parent said it might be as much as $2 million.

The school has proposed paying $3,000 in rent monthly from January through August 2014 and $5,000 a month beginning in September, when classes would be in session.

For now, the commission will move forward with appraising the police building and discussing its potential. The commissioners also offered to lobby with the school board in an attempt to help Academy by the Sea get use of the Gulf Beaches Elementary building, which school representatives and commissioners agreed would be the best option, if available.

However, the charter school’s board members stressed that the school board made it clear to them that they were not considering leasing the school. Board member Luann Schecht said there are other buildings available, but none compares to Gulf Beaches or the police building for accommodating a school.

“We can’t say yes or no,” Mayor Steve McFarlin said to school representatives at the meeting. “But I don’t want you to stop your quest.”

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