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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 11 months ago

District, city plot changes after closing School Avenue

The school district will begin work on designing a new pedestrian-bicycle route west of the Sarasota High campus along U.S. 41.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

On Monday, Sarasota County Schools achieved a goal it has had for decades: unifying the Sarasota High School campus.

The City Commission voted 4-1 to give up its control of the segment of School Avenue between Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street. The road, which bifurcated Sarasota High, is no longer open to the public, even when school is not in session.

The school district made the street closure a priority while it attempted to improve campus safety after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. After Monday’s meeting, school officials said they would begin a plan to replace the fencing around the Sarasota High property.

Some residents living near Sarasota High objected to the street closure and expressed concern about the effects it would have on the transportation network in the area. As part of the agreement the city approved Monday, the school district is committed to making up to $3 million in improvements to streets east and west of the now-closed segment of School Avenue.

Some of the specific plans to improve street connectivity are still to be determined, but the school district plans to start working on the projects immediately, said Jody Dumas, the district’s executive director of facilities construction and planning.

The school district agreed to build a bicycle-pedestrian pathway west of campus along U.S. 41 that includes routes to and from the surrounding residential areas. Construction is supposed to begin within two years and be completed within three; Dumas said the district was confident it could hit those deadlines.

Plans for the east side of the school campus include improving sidewalks on Shade Avenue, Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch expressed concern about language in the agreement that stated work would begin on the east side of campus first. She said she heard from residents who considered the west side improvements to be a higher priority.

“There’s angst that the money is going to be spent on the east side and [that] there won’t be money on the west side,” Ahearn-Koch said.

City staff said the work on the east side was mostly focused on ensuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and would represent a small portion of the overall $3 million budget.

Dumas said the district was inviting city staff to participate in the process of undertaking the transportation improvements. He said the district’s primary goal was to address the needs the city and residents have expressed.

“We want to make sure we build what they want to see out there,” Dumas said.

Ahearn-Koch was the lone dissenting vote against the closure. The rest of the commission supported the school district’s request.

“Keeping the grid open is an important thing under normal circumstances, but we’re not talking about normal circumstances here,” Mayor Liz Alpert said.

Internally, the school district has work to do before it can begin construction on new fencing for Sarasota High. When the school board reviewed a capital improvement plan earlier in the summer, staff had not priced out the fence replacement project, so the work was not included in the budget.

Dumas said staff intended to return to the school board in about a month with a pricing estimate to adjust the budget and allow the project to move forward. He said work would be ongoing while school is in session, coordinated with student and administrative schedules to minimize disruption.

He said the district would also work to coordinate with its neighbors as it advances projects on and adjacent to Sarasota High.

“Those project teams will work very hard to make sure local community members are kept informed,” Dumas said.

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