At a future meeting with the city, Sarasota County Schools wants to discuss closing a segment of the road to unite the Sarasota High School campus.
The city of Sarasota and Sarasota County Schools are working to schedule a meeting to discuss the potential closure of a segment of School Avenue that cuts through the campus of Sarasota High School.
On March 22, the Sarasota County School Board agreed to send a letter to the City Commission requesting a joint meeting as the school board pursues the closure. The two bodies have not yet set a date, but school officials are eager to move forward with a two-step plan that would eventually restrict all vehicular and pedestrian access from a portion of School Avenue.
Initially, the school board will ask for permission to bar pedestrian and bicycle access during the school day on School Avenue between Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street. Vehicular access is already prohibited on that segment when school is in session.
At the same time, the school district will seek a complete street closure from the city, a longer-term process that would restrict all public access to that portion of School Avenue. If approved, the street closure would unite the campus of Sarasota High, which the road currently bisects.
The school board is pursuing the changes as it considers security enhancements for schools throughout the district. Scott Lempe, the school district’s assistant superintendent and chief operating officer, hopes to have the first step of the plan approved ahead of the next school year.
“We want to have something in place when kids come back in August 2018 that gives them a safer and more secure environment,” Lempe said.
In anticipation of the upcoming discussion, residents in the nearby Alta Vista neighborhood have already taken a stance against any street closure. On March 29, the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association voted unanimously to oppose the proposed street closure, asking for continued pedestrian access to School Avenue throughout the day.
The neighborhood association has said School Avenue provides a vital connection to Payne Park and the downtown area for Alta Vista. Although the preliminary version of a traffic study the school board conducted suggests Shade Avenue to the east as an alternative pedestrian route, the residents want the city to preserve the existing road grid wherever possible.
Although the school district has cited security concerns after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland as a motivating factor for the requested closure, former Alta Vista Neighborhood Association president Stan Zimmerman said the street vacation has been a long-standing goal for the district.
Zimmerman and other residents said the street closure was one path toward enhancing safety on the Sarasota High campus. The neighborhood was unconvinced that it was an effective option. The group held firm in its belief the public should continue to have access to the streets and sidewalks along School Avenue.
“Until I hear a good reason to change our position, then I suggest we maintain the position we’ve held all these years,” Zimmerman said.
Lempe said he understood the desire to preserve as much public roadway as possible, but he said the city had to weigh the importance of this street segment versus the safety of Sarasota High. He said the school district has investigated alternative solutions but feels the street closure is the most straightforward option.
“We talked about bridges above and tunnels underneath and fences down the middle, and there just isn’t a practical solution that works,” Lempe said.
Although the district is facing a dispute with residents, officials are excited to discuss the potential street closure with city officials. Lempe said he was optimistic the conversation will be productive, even if there are disagreements between the parties involved.
“Both sides clearly understand the competing interests, and we all want to do what’s best for the broader communities,” Lempe said.