A change can and does make a difference

Rene Flowers

Recently, the Tampa Bay Times reported on a story in regards to the possibility of construction of a new facility for Melrose Elementary School. I found the article interesting, but missing quite a bit of information that I would like to share with the readers.

This is not meant to be an attack on any of the elected and non-elected individuals mentioned in the Times article.

The request for a new Melrose did not begin with Superintendent Dr. Grego, Mayor Kriseman or with Councilmember Karl Nurse as the Times article asserts, nor will I allow it to end with the reporting of their article. A very viable and affordable solution for a new edifice on the current site is doable and should be our focus.

During my quest to replace former School Board Member Lew Williams after his passing, there were several conversations about education, teaching methodologies, what could be done to improve the condition of our students and add to the quality of teaching and teachers in south St. Petersburg. The overarching conversation always led back to the same place. When can we get new schools on our side of town?

Dr. Mendee Ligon, a dear friend and a strong supporter of Lakewood High School, wanted to see improvements at Lakewood, specifically the gym. Dr. Ligon’s children attended Lakewood and were very involved in academics as well as athletics. She expressed her concerns and shared that for years she and other parents have advocated for upgrades with no results. Several of Gibbs High School Alumni wanted to see renovations/upgrades at Gibbs in areas that serviced students who were not a part of the PCCA or BETA programs and members of the community (Rev. Clarence Williams specifically) advocated for a New Melrose Elementary School.

Once elected, I immediately inquired as to the process of new construction to include researching any additional funding the district could agree to. As many of you know, Public Education and Capital Outlay (PECO) dollars have been thwarted over to charter school designations, leaving very little for public schools to access. Just this current fiscal year, Pinellas County only received 1.2 million dollars in PECO dollars. To draw out the gapping fiscal need, the new construction at Largo High School, which began in 2014, will ring in at a tune of $55 million.

During the budget process, a presentation was made to School Board members at a workshop on addressing the construction issues at these schools by administration. The graph presented spanned over five years (Five Year District Facilities Plan) and funds/projects were ranked based on urgency and need. In that plan, Melrose was scheduled for major renovations, which included the construction of two new wings to move the students out of the portables.

Lakewood High School was scheduled for a gym, cafeteria and community area in front of the cafeteria, and Gibbs had a few rehabilitation items but no major work. The items would take place over time, which again was a grave concern in that Melrose Elementary is one of the oldest facilities and is in need of major work. I continued to push for ways in which we could plan new construction for Melrose while not pitting those upgrades against Lakewood or Gibbs or any other major projects in the district.

I would be remiss if I did not state that Dr. Grego was very open to the idea and Mr. Clint Herbic (in charge of facilities and maintenance) was supportive of my requests as well. As always and most unfortunate, money was the issue. I must also share that during discussions at our workshops, my colleagues have NOT opposed the idea(s) either.

In the interim, the “Failure Factory” article took center stage. Several meetings were held with city leaders; however, the meeting that specifically addressed (requested) new construction of Melrose took place at Campbell Park Elementary. As we went around the room and talked about solutions and ideas, Rev. Clarence Williams again addressed the day-to-day concerns at Melrose and implicitly asked for a new Melrose Elementary School. I assured Rev. Williams that I would continue pushing for such and that the request should be a part of the larger conversation of how to assist the students, parents, staff and community.

Prior to this meeting, Rev. Williams and I have discussed ideas ranging from vacant land, to assembling vacant properties, to the possibility of moving the school away from the current location. My issue with that was proximity to another elementary school in the community as well as taking a school out of the community that would be within walking distance. Such a move would increase transportation costs and certainly draw the ire of the community. With very few options of land available that would meet the acreage requirements, purchasing of homes would have to be factored in and PCS does not have the funds to purchase homes and relocate those families nor am I interested in eminent domain discussions. Henceforth, the best idea appeared to be to rebuild on the current site!

Shortly thereafter, a few individuals from administration traveled through St. Petersburg looking for possible sites. Of course when you drive down 22nd Street between Fifth Avenue South and Ninth Avenue South, you cannot miss the large track of land that sits vacant across form Sylvia’s Restaurant—cleared in 2007 as part of the Dome Industrial District property purchased by the city while I served as a city council member. Property purchased with the hopes of attracting viable businesses. Property purchased just adjacent to the vacant lots where Job Corps now sits thanks to former Commissioner Robert Stewart and many others. The group traversed this site and began their inquiry.

When I was presented with this option as a discussion point, I immediately advised administration of the Commerce Park RFP process that was ALREADY in place and in fact had already presented the entities that submitted their proposals and the ranking of those proposals. Not in any specific order, Mario Farias representing EMP and Mario Farias Consulting, Toriano Parker submitting as the Deuces Live, Inc, and Euro Cycles (a BMW Motorcycle Dealership proposal). Knowing the climate and knowing the sensitivity of the community, I strongly encouraged PCS administration to allow the cities process to move forward. My familiarity with HUD regulations and serving on the council when the land was purchased, I knew right away that veering from this process was neither reasonable nor feasible when addressing the employment and economic development components.

It is my understanding that a follow up meeting occurred whereby mention of possible property availability after the top two projects were awarded might be available. Again, I stressed that we (PCS) stay away from this plat of land until the city was thoroughly complete with its process. IF there was an option after that, then I would entertain possibilities.

Moving past the HUD issues, the following questions were also glaring: 1) was there enough land to accommodate an elementary school; 2) there are a few homes and a church currently in the vicinity and purchase of those properties would have to become a part of the equation; 3) the restaurant across the street (Sylvia’s) serves alcohol and the close proximity would be a concern when constructing a school to name a few. Once again I stated that construction on the current site was a strong option, my preferred option. I dare not speak on behalf of Dr. Grego, however, I believe I made very valid points to him and I believe he considered those points.

I also want to share with the readers that I am aware of the Melrose Club House that remains on the backside of the school currently. Vacant for a number of years, I want to discuss with the community all options regarding this building. I understand the sentiment to this property as well as the conversations about soil contamination. In this regard, I followed up with FloridaHealth.gov and discovered that the remediation of the playground area took place and is no longer a risk per “Roy F. Weston, Inc. Memorandum to Bob Rosen from Patrick R. McKeen concerning Technical Assistance Team Response Actions at the Melrose Elementary Site, St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, Florida. June 23, 1995.” You can find a full copy of the report at http://www.floridahealth.gov/environmental-health/hazardous-waste-sites/_documents/m/melroselead082998.pdf

I know how important sustainable economic development projects, economic incubators, living wage jobs, housing, arts and culture and general services are to our community. Unlike never before, we can see a clear link between employment, education and housing as a means to the stability of the family in Midtown! Yes, the arts is a strong link in the community, however, so is the Deuces Live (formerly 22nd Street Main Street) and all of the other businesses that have held on for years along this corridor. The argument should not be what about the Warehouse District nor what about Deuces Live or anything else. The conversation should be how we can partner to grow our community. You see, at the heart of all of this are the students who will someday become adults and might consider raising their families in this very same community. What are we leaving behind for them? What are we building up for them?

Pinellas County School Board members have discussed ways in which a bonding issue for such projects can get us where we want to be—where we need to be as far as upgrades and new construction to our older facilities.

For those who may ask the question: “What does this have to do with our students and their ability to learn?” My response is, “Quite a lot.” By no means am I advocating that a new building will solve the concerns that have been raised. What I am factually stating is that the environment in which you learn plays a large role in your ability to learn. Students should have pride and be proud of the school they attend. Teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, parents and the community should be proud of where their children spend a great majority of their time and where they work.

I have every intention on involving the community. I want to hear your ideas. A similar process was utilized for the constriction of Gibbs High School. The community embraced the project because they were included.

Plagued with flooding when it rains, ingress and egress issues, a small school footprint and age of the building, you would have to agree that it is time for a new Melrose Elementary School.

(The facts, comments, and ideas expressed in this article are those of Rene Flowers and in no way represents the Pinellas County School Board, superintendent, or administration).
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