School officials want to close a segment of School Avenue that cuts through Sarasota High School, but some nearby residents question the merits of the proposal.
Sarasota High School students, staff and parents asked city and school officials Tuesday to restrict all external access to a segment of School Avenue that bisects the campus — initially on a temporary basis, and eventually permanently.
At a joint meeting of the City Commission and Sarasota County School Board, school representatives expressed a desire to move quickly toward a closure. Currently, the portion of School Avenue between Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street is closed to vehicular access on school days between 6:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Pedestrians and cyclists may pass along School Avenue during those hours.
The School Board is asking the city to revise an interlocal agreement between the two bodies that dictates the terms of the School Avenue closure. At Tuesday’s meeting, school representatives proposed restricting all access to the street, including bicycles and pedestrians, while the closure is in effect. Staff proposed changing the hours of the closure to 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on days school is in session.
School officials, backed by students and parents, said the changes were an important safety measure to protect what is currently an open campus. Several speakers at Tuesday’s meeting referenced the number of school shootings that have occurred since the incident at Columbine High School in 1999 as a motivating factor for restricting access.
School staff members said they were even more concerned about appropriately manging the day-to-day activity at Sarasota High. Principal David Jones said there is an ever-present concern that people who aren’t supposed to be on campus could enter the property via School Avenue, and people who are supposed to be on campus could leave.
Jones and other school officials said closing the street to external access would ensure all visitors to Sarasota High arrive and exit through a single point. He added that both shootings natinoally and more minor intrusions locally contribute to an environment of fear on campus.
“I believe every single student has the right to feel safe at his or her school,” Jones said.
Residents living near Saraosta High appeared at Tuesday’s meeting to question the necessity of blocking access to School Avenue for extended hours — or of perhaps closing it altogether. Some said there was not enough evidence demonstrating the proposal was the only path toward enhancing safety. Others said they understood the desire to restrict all access during school hours, but took issue with the district’s plans to eventually request a permanent closure of the street.
“Why would it have to be closed during the weekend, or all summer long?” said Candy Spaulding, a former president of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association.
The possibility of permanently restricting all vehicular and pedestrian access is a longer process that will take months for city and school officials to review. Residents of adjacent neighborhoods such as Alta Vista urged the city to carefully consider any changes, calling School Avenue a vital part of the road network.
Although the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association formally expressed opposition to the closure, at least two people living in the neighborhood challenged the significance of that support. Alta Vista resident Matt Wooddall said fewer than a dozen residents attended the meeting at which the neighborhood association adopted its position opposing the proposal.
Both boards are scheduled to discuss the revised interlocal agreement for potential adoption at meetings later this month. The School Board will review the changes at a May 15 meeting, and the City Commission will revisit the topic May 21.
Although the School Board expressed a desire to adopt the changes as soon as possible, the City Commission offered no guarantees it would approve the new agreement at its next meeting. Commissioner Hagen Brody was the most vocal proponent of the proposal among city officials, signaling his support for permanently closing School Avenue.
“The safety of the students clearly outweighs the convenience of pedestrians,” Brody said.
Other commissioners said elements of the proposal seemed reasonable, but some asked for a more detailed justification for the changes before committing to a new agreement.
“I would just like to see some more information,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said. “I don’t like to make up my mind ahead of time.”
The School Board, meanwhile, expressed hope the issue would be settled before the end of the month, allowing for the installation of new fencing sectioning off the Sarasota High campus before the beginning of the next school year.
And then, school officials hope, attention can shift to the permanent closure of School Avenue.
“We have to get with the times to make sure our kids are safe,” School Board member Caroline Zucker said.