The old Southside Fundamental Middle School building in South St. Petersburg will have a new tenant this fall.
In less than five minutes today, the Pinellas County School Board voted unanimously to declare the building unnecessary for the district’s educational purposes, sell it to K-8 charter school University Preparatory Academies for $1.1 million and then approved the school's charter application for five years.
But it took nearly two years of discussion and planning to get to that point. Selling a school district building to a charter school sets a new precedent for the state.
“It’s been a long road to get here,” said Cheri Shannon, University Prep founder. “We wanted to open a school in an area that’s high poverty and high minority, but there weren’t a lot of facilities. One day I was driving around and found Southside and have pursued it ever since.”
Selling the abandoned Southside Fundamental Middle School building on 10th Street South to University Preparatory Academy posed several ethical questions, board members said.
District policy requires that all charter schools have a location before they can be approved to open. But if that location was purchased from the district before an application is approved, it raises questions about what would happen if the sale falls through or the charter application was deemed inadequate.
Experts say the decision not only sets a precedent for the Pinellas County School District but other districts that might attempt a similar agreement.
School Board chairwoman Carol Cook said she thinks Pinellas County has developed a good model.
“There are many districts in the state that separate their public schools from their charters,’’ Cook said, “but guess what? Charter schools are public schools, too. We’re going to do what’s right by our kids.”
Shannon said school officials are still confident they can open the new charter by next fall. The school wants to enroll 564 students in kindergarten through 8th grade in the fall and hopes to have 866 students in five years, with the possibility of adding a high school.
Goliath Davis, the former deputy mayor and police chief in St. Petersburg, now heads the nonprofit organization Learning Village of Pinellas, which has helped efforts to start the school.
Davis says University Preparatory Academy will help fulfill a memorandum of understanding from a 49-year-old integration lawsuit that requires the district to set a goal of creating at least 500 charter seats in predominately black neighborhoods.
“We all really got into the meat of it,” Wikle said. “I really feel comfortable with this partnership … What really convinced me was the memorandum from the lawsuit. It’s something we agreed to and this will help us fulfill that aspiration.”
The school board is not in violation of the lawsuit, said lawyer David Koperski, but critics say the district will be compromised by the board’s decision to close St. Petersburg's Imagine Charter School at the end of the school year.
But even though School Board members are happy with the outcome of the sale, it doesn’t mean that every charter school that may want to follow in University Preparatory’s footsteps will be able to do so, Cook said.
“I don’t want to be forced into saying, ‘That school is empty, therefore we have to sell it to a charter,’ because we could have other plans,” Cook said.
“It comes down to asking, ‘Do we really see how we can use this building in the future?’ If we have ideas for a building, we’ll use them.”