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Plea to preserve school's past

Safety Harbor Elementary will be replaced, but some hope to save its historic auditorium.

By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published February 27, 2007


SAFETY HARBOR - When it was built back in 1926, Safety Harbor School was surrounded by seemingly endless miles of orange groves and cow pastures.

Interim City Commissioner Claude Rigsby, who entered first grade at the school in 1931, has fond memories of his time there.

He played six-man football and pitched for the softball team, which won the county championship in 1941.

And in the old auditorium "we had plays all the time," Rigsby said.

"I played Rip Van Winkle once and my brother and I were two of the three wise men," he said.

Now that Safety Harbor School, now called Safety Harbor Elementary, is slated for replacement within five years, Rigsby, the rest of the City Commission and concerned parents are planning to ask the Pinellas County School District to preserve the original two-story administration building.

It is a time capsule holding the original classrooms, offices and auditorium with its hardwood floor and heavy, old-fashioned maroon curtains.

"The auditorium has historical value," said Vice Mayor Kathleen Earle, who attended the school for five years and recalls singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow on its stage. "It's a blast from the past."

Tony Rivas, director of facilities for the school district, said it's far too early to say whether a part of the school can be preserved, but that he and his team always try to address the desires of parents, residents and city officials on such projects.

Consequently, this would be a good time for school administrators to hear about the city's wishes, Rivas said in an e-mail to the Times. That way, he added, the school district can consider the request and see if it can be accommodated while addressing the district's needs.

In the past, school administrators have worked with communities to achieve common goals, Rivas said. One example, he noted, is the joint use of the track at Safety Harbor Middle School, a collaboration between the school and the city.

For now, Earle and Rigsby recognize that the 81-year-old school, located on 10 acres at 535 Fifth Ave. N, needs to be updated and expanded.

While Safety Harbor Elementary is "a very charming school," said principal Debbie Ramker, she and the teachers miss out on some of the modern amenities newer schools offer.

And it's overcrowded.

The facility, which has been added on to over the years, was meant to hold 532 students; enrollment is now 675.

"We're using every available space that we have," Ramker said. There are 30 classrooms and 13 portables.

The district's replacement project is part of its five-year capital outlay plan and is expected to cost more than $32.5-million.

Terrie Dahl-Thomas, whose 8-year-old daughter Fairl is in second grade at the school, said let it go forth, but just save the old auditorium. "(The students) have talent shows there with the big curtain," she said. "It even has spotlights the kids run."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.