Land sale for schools raises some eyebrows

Published March 31, 2007

TAMPA - Four years after Joe Newsome retired from the Hillsborough School Board, a land deal with the school district is ensuring a generous inheritance for his children.

His family stands to make $3.8-million by selling 34 acres of strawberry fields for a campus at Interstate 4 and McIntosh Road. The Newsome property commanded the highest price - $110,000 per acre - of the three major parcels under contract for the campus.

The property may not be easy to develop. The county says much of the land may sit in a high-risk flood zone. School officials are appealing that designation.

Newsome and school administrators defend the deal, which critics say smacks of cronyism.

"I didn't give up my rights because I've been a School Board member," said Newsome, who served 24 years on the board.

As required by Florida law, the school district got two appraisals of each property to determine a fair sales price, said Cathy Valdes, the chief facilities officer for Hillsborough schools.

But Sandy Denham, a 28-year teacher in Hillsborough schools, wonders why the district wasn't interested in a 50-acre parcel just up the road selling for half the price of the Newsome land.

"It's a good-old-boys system. It always has been and it always will be," said Denham, who teaches at Plant City High. "As a teacher and a citizen, I just want our School Board to be accountable. They want us to be."