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A Times Editorial

Decision leaves district weak-kneed

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 26, 2002

Which of these sounds like the most logical place to build a county school?

In the midst of an educational campus containing a center for vocational students and an elementary school, on land already owned by the school district, near homes and a YMCA, on a sidewalk-lined street that is adequate but not swamped with traffic.

Or ...

In the midst of manufacturing facilities, a juvenile detention center and the county jail, on a site that has pollution problems and is located just off of a major road bustling with cars and trucks.

The story of how the Pinellas County School Board came to choose the second location rather than the first for the planned Bayside High School is long and troubling. Now, the situation is further complicated by the need to hold a countywide referendum to get voters' approval before the site that was chosen can be used.

All this points to a failure of leadership by Pinellas school officials, not to mention a precedent that could make locating future school sites more difficult.

School officials wanted to build Bayside High School on 150th Avenue, where the district owns an expanse of land that contains the Pinellas Technical Education Center and High Point Elementary School. The location, which is roughly between Largo's eastern boundary and the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, seemed perfect for the new school. The land is owned by the district; it is in an area already proven suitable for educational uses, and it is within easy walking distance of PTEC, where Bayside High kids could take vocational classes.

But residents of nearby neighborhoods didn't want Bayside High in their community. The school will serve 500 high school students countywide who have not been successful in regular high schools. They will be students who are habitually truant, have behavior or attitude problems, or whose actions have gotten them in trouble with the law. Nearby residents feared having lawbreakers roaming their neighborhoods, and they opposed the idea of such a school next to High Point Elementary.

The neighbors fought the school with such determination that the School Board abandoned what was clearly the superior site and chose a location a little more than a mile away surrounded by business park offices, manufacturing and commercial facilities, the detention center and the county's criminal courts/jail complex.

Not only is that not an educational environment, but the property, just off 49th Street, creates several unusual complexities for the district. The former home of Zero Manufacturing, the site was contaminated and may require additional cleanup. The school district wants to lease and eventually purchase the 12-acre property, which is owned by the Federal Aviation Administration, but it must have voter approval in a referendum, scheduled for Nov. 5. The land has not yet been appraised, but district officials believe it will cost about $4-million. Those millions get added to the $15-million cost of building Bayside High. And the school, which district officials had hoped to open by next year, gets delayed -- again.

Added costs. Added complexities. More delays. A poor educational environment. Everything hinging on a referendum. This "solution" may satisfy the neighborhood that rejected Bayside High, but it should not satisfy taxpayers, parents or school officials. If officials had done a better job of addressing the neighborhood's security concerns, and if School Board members had been determined to use the site that was best for students, Bayside High would today be going up on the district's preferred site.

While the neighborhood that fought Bayside High had some valid concerns that should have been considered in the design and operating procedures for the school, the School Board's decision to instead throw in the towel and go elsewhere is disappointing.

In the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere, neighborhoods seem increasingly inclined to oppose school construction, arguing that schools bring undesirable traffic and noise. Some opponents even contend that schools don't belong in neighborhoods. Where, then? In industrial parks? Along interstates?

This is not the last time the Pinellas School Board will face opposition from neighborhoods over school construction. But those future battles will be tougher now that neighborhoods know they can make the board capitulate.

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