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Should you build schools near sex offenders?

Two sites that a broker arranged for school officials to buy sit right in the middle of dozens of sexual offenders. And they may not have to move.

Published March 12, 2006

TAMPA - One of the school sites is on a crime-ridden stretch of E Hillsborough Avenue. The other is smack in the middle of an industrial neighborhood.

And both sites sit within a mile of 29 sexual offenders, most of them convicted of crimes involving children.

How did Hillsborough County school officials end up with such odd locations for new schools?

The same way they end up with much of their property: A private broker brought them forward.

Parents of children who may have to attend these unbuilt schools are worried, especially after learning many of the offenders may not have to leave. Only those still under law enforcement supervision who have been convicted of a crime involving children can be ordered to move, said Al Danna, special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

And even that is "up to a judge," Danna said.

Michelle Jackson fears for the children who will have to walk to the future Oak Park Elementary School.

"I think they should have picked a better area," said Jackson, whose 8-year-old daughter will attend the school. "The neighborhood is bad."

School superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district will work with law enforcement to make sure sex offenders are no longer housed in old hotels and buildings in the two neighborhoods.

"That's one of the unfortunate things society has to contend with," she said.

The school district purchased the site at 4310 E Hillsborough Ave. in December. For most of its history, the property was the location of the End Gate Mobile Home Park, which was condemned by the City of Tampa in 2003.

Taxpayers are paying a premium for the 7-acres. Its $1.7-million cost is $600,000 more than the last price paid for the property just three years ago, and higher than both appraisals done for the school district. The cost includes $265,000 in city liens that school officials have agreed to absorb.

But taxpayers are getting anything but a tony address.

The property, facing one of the busiest thoroughfares in the county, is in a high-crime area. Two blocks away is the $35-a-night Luxury Motel, where a kidnapper and his hostage were shot to death by police in October.

Five sex offenders live just two-tenths of a mile away, at another seedy motel on Hillsborough Avenue. Three more reside four-tenths of a mile away in a run-down mobile home park.

Fred Edmister, one of the private brokers used by the school district to find school sites and negotiate their price, recommended the property. He had tried three years earlier to peddle it as a school bus terminal, according to attorney Buddy Gissendanner.

That failed. But for brokering the End Gate property as a school site, Edmister was paid a 3 percent commission of $42,000.

The district initially wanted the End Gate land for a middle school, but the property is too small. They now plan to build an elementary school there. School officials hope to negotiate the purchase of adjoining land owned by the Church of God By Faith.

The church bought it for $75,000 in 1990. Edmister informed school officials they could expect to buy it for $275,000 to $440,000.

But Church Pastor Albert Landers said recently his elders are looking for a price "in the neighborhood" of $550,000.

Edmister also was the catalyst behind the district's 2004 condemnation of Bolt & Nut Inc., a factory located at 2716 N 46th St. It, too, sits in close proximity to more than two dozen sex offenders.

School officials are building the new Oak Park school there, which will open some time in 2007. The old school was closed for an interstate widening project.

Bob Cornett, the factory's owner, said Edmister was not forthright about his intentions. He said Edmister did not disclose he was working for the school district for six months.

Edmister told school officials Cornett wanted to sell, but Cornett said he never expressed a desire to sell his property. District officials never spoke to Cornett until after Edmister delivered the district's offer in June 2004.

The district eventually had to condemn Cornett's property, offering him a settlement of $2.5-million that he has yet to accept. Appraisals valued the property at $1-million and $1.5-million. Edmister said in a court deposition he expects a 3 percent commission.

The legal fight delayed the construction of Oak Park, where displaced students have been stuck on a campus made up entirely of portable classrooms for three years.

School officials blame Cornett for the delays.

Not so, said Cornett's attorney, Cary Gaylord.

"They created every bit of the problem they are now facing," he said. "If there's a lesson to be learned, it's that sneaking around on the sly doesn't do anybody any good."

[Last modified March 12, 2006, 06:59:02]

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