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Reinvigorated by a letter from an Orlando company that finances charter schools, Largo's leader wants the city to turn the old public library building into a charter school.
By MICHAEL SANDLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 2001
LARGO -- Mayor Bob Jackson may no longer roam the halls, but his heart has yet to leave schools behind.
Jackson, a retired teacher and principal for the Pinellas School District, has embraced the idea of a charter school in Largo. And he's got just the place for it.
He suggested last year that the City Commission consider converting the city's library into an alternative school for arts and public speaking. A few commissioners were intrigued by his idea, but he met with some resistance and put off the discussion.
Now he has received a letter from an Orlando company that finances charter schools, and he is gearing up for a stronger pitch.
"It's an alternative," Jackson said. "It would be a public school that could compete with some of these private schools we are losing our children to."
The city has plans to build a new library across from the current one and opposite the cultural center. When that's done, the old building in the middle of Largo's pristine Central Park will be vacant.
Jackson wants to lease the 36,000-square-foot space and has floated the idea of a charter school as an option. Other commissioners say that's out of the question.
"I just don't think the city needs to be in the business of running schools," Commissioner Pat Gerard said. "I know the mayor is a former principal. But that's not what the city's about."
Finding a solution for the empty library is an immediate concern for all on the commission. But solving problems in education has been a lifelong vocation for Jackson.
Even though he retired four years ago, he still enjoys keeping tabs on former students and keeping up with trends in education.
In recent years, he has watched private schools lure top students with specialized programs, smaller classrooms and policies built around the student body, not a school district.
The mayor is not fond of vouchers, which support private education. But charter schools are a hybrid that could resolve many issues, he said. Monitored by the state but not bound by districtwide regulations, the school could select students throughout the district and offer specialized programs in drama, art and public speaking.
"When you have one school, you can set up policies for that one school," he said. "You have the freedom of flexibility to develop programs that meet the needs of those kids."
Jackson would like to lease the building to a board that would manage the day-to-day operations of the school. The city would not play a major role.
Last month he met with Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, who represents an area that includes Largo. Recently, she received a letter from United Capital Resources, an Orlando company that finances charter schools.
That letter was sent to county commissioners throughout the state. Noting the mayor's prior interest, she brought it to their meeting.
"This came across my desk, and I had not done anything with it," she said. "I thought I'd pass it along. I thought he might find it interesting."
The city still must decide on an architect for the new library. Construction is at least a year away, perhaps longer.
One concern will be parking. Demand for space is high, and spaces are few. The cultural center, the library and the new building are all surrounded by Largo Central Park.
Jackson said schools draw most vehicles in the morning and early afternoon, while the cultural center and library have heavy volume in the evening.
Marty Shelby and city manager Steve Stanton have said the idea is worth looking into.
But others say no.
Mary Laurance has said the city could turn the building into a senior center.
Gerard said the district already has three schools devoted to the arts -- Perkins Elementary, Johns Hopkins Middle and Gibbs High School.
She recognizes growing pressure to compete with private schools fueled by a need for more specialized programs. But that burden, she said, should not fall upon the city government.
"When schools have to compete with each other to attract students, you are going to see a lot more of this," she said. "We don't need to get involved."