After successfully petitioning the city to expand the restrictions on a segment of School Avenue, school officials hope the road can be closed for good.
At a series of meetings this month, Sarasota High School students and staff members have spoken passionately about the need to improve the security on campus.
At those same meetings, residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Sarasota High have questioned the necessity and efficacy of a security enhancement Sarasota County Schools is intent on pursuing.
The divergent viewpoints set up a potentially contentious review of the school district’s forthcoming request to close all external access to a segment of School Avenue that cuts through the Sarasota High campus.
School representatives say the argument for closing the street is straightforward. For security reasons, the school wants to maintain a perimeter around the campus. Closing School Avenue between Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street would steer visitors to a single entrance. It’s not sufficient to only close the gates when school is in session, because extracurricular activities mean there are usually students on the grounds year-round.
Already, residents of the Alta Vista and Arlington Park neighborhoods have urged the city not to close off a part of its transportation grid. And some opponents of the proposal have leveled serious accusations regarding the school district’s motives. Speakers at this month’s meeting have pointed out the school has been interested in obtaining the road for nearly three decades, calling the latest push a “land grab.”
The school district is preparing to submit a street vacation request for city staff to review, which begins the process of determining if the road will be closed. As the district prepares for intensive discussions, it wants to first make its priorities clear.
“My motivation, 100%, is the safety and security of my kids,” Sarasota High Principal David Jones said. “I care very deeply about my students.”
Already, the school district has made progress on limiting outside access to School Avenue. On Monday, the City Commission voted 4-1 to adopt an interlocal agreement with the Sarasota County School Board that will restrict all external access to the road from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on days school is in session.
Previously, the agreement allowed for the road to be closed to vehicular access between 6:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. City commissioners said they believed the enhanced safety for students outweighed any inconvenience to residents. Mayor Liz Alpert specifically addressed critiques that called the expanded closure an imperfect safety strategy.
“Do you leave your house unlocked because someone could get in anyway?” Alpert said. “You have to do what you can do to keep students and people as safe as they can.”
Despite the vote, some city commissioners signaled the street vacation request would be subject to tougher scrutiny. Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie called the extended closure a “no brainer,” particularly after recent school shootings. But she said she had questions about closing the street when school isn’t in session.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, the lone vote against the interlocal agreement, said she wanted to see more specifics about how closing the road might affect the surrounding areas. Although the school district conducted a traffic study that said the traffic could be rerouted if some improvements are made, she wanted a broader discussion about the transportation network in the area around the high school.
She pointed to future development in the area, which includes the Sarasota Museum of Art near U.S. 41 and Bahia Vista Street and the 77-unit Payne Park Village development at 301 S. School Ave.
“How is this going to be impacting this whole situation?” Ahearn-Koch asked.
The school district said it wants to have the same conversations, confident it can find a solution that satisfies the needs of all parties. The school district plans to hold a community charrette June 18 to discuss improvements that could be associated with the School Avenue closure.
The district has committed to making improvements along Hatton and Tami Sola if School Avenue is closed. Jones is excited about the prospect of discussing even more ambitious alternatives with residents, such as the possible creation of a new trail that cuts between the Sarasota Museum of Architecture and Sarasota High.
He knows some residents are skeptical about the necessity of the closure, but he said he feels compelled to do whatever he reasonably can to protect students on school grounds.
Assistant Superintendent Scott Lempe expressed similar optimism that a win-win solution is available. Residents opposed to the closure have been less hopeful, concerned the school board is singularly focused on closing School Avenue as the only option for enhancing school safety.
And yet, Lempe said the ongoing dialog between both parties may land on a strategy that satisfies everybody.
“If reasonable people get together and are reasonable about their expectations, it can be done,” Lempe said.