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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 28, 2019 2 years ago

Proposed School Avenue closure draws opposition

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Residents and Planning Board members criticized a Sarasota County Schools plan to permanently close a road that cuts through Sarasota High.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Before the city Planning Board unanimously recommended denial of a request to close a segment of School Avenue that bisects the Sarasota High School campus, one of the members wanted to reframe the conversation surrounding the proposal.

Sarasota County Schools officials appeared before the Planning Board on March 13 to discuss an application that asks the city to vacate its control of an 800-foot segment of School Avenue, which would allow the district to permanently close the road and unify its divided campus. Although school leaders and students spoke at the meeting about the importance of the closure as a safety measure, Planning Board member Patrick Gannon said the dynamics of the proposal weren’t so clear-cut.

“The issue before the Planning Board is not one of school safety versus inconveniencing residents,” Gannon said. “If it was just that, it would be a no-brainer. School safety, children’s safety comes first.”

Gannon’s comments spoke to a challenge the school district faces as the requested street vacation heads to the City Commission. Residents surrounding Sarasota High — as well as Planning Board members — were not convinced the city permanently ceding its control of the road would provide a meaningful benefit for the district and students.

The school district has argued the number of school shootings over the past two decades shows a need to create a single point of entry to Sarasota High. Last year, the city approved an interlocal agreement with the district permitting the closure of School Avenue from 6:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. on days school is in session.

Asked why that closure wasn’t sufficient, Sarasota High Principal David Jones said activities sometimes keep students on campus even later. He also expressed concern about people potentially stashing weapons on campus or gaining access to the school property while the road is open. Jones said safety is his top priority as a school administrator.

“If my students aren’t safe, and they’re not confident they’re safe, learning is definitely compromised,” Jones said.

Although the school district said it had considered and ruled out other options for addressing the divided campus, officials still fielded questions about whether a street vacation was the best choice. Planning Board member Damien Blumetti asked why the school couldn’t have closed fences cordoning off the east and west sides of campus when School Avenue is open to the public.

Jody Dumas, the school district’s executive director of facilities construction and planning, expressed concern adding more fencing in the middle of the school’s campus would create safety issues by having a funneling effect on students traveling from one side of the street to the other. When asked why the district couldn’t just achieve its desired changes by modifying the existing interlocal agreement — a binding contract that would need the approval of both parties to change — school district Planning Director Kathie Ebaugh said that wouldn’t be permanent enough.

“We are asking for something that can’t be changed,” Ebaugh said.

Residents from neighborhoods near Sarasota High have objected to the street vacation request, arguing School Avenue is an important part of the city’s long-term transportation network. The school district has committed $3 million toward transportation improvements if the street vacation is approved, which would fund bicycle- and pedestrian-oriented upgrades in the area. The city proposed making sidewalk improvements along U.S. 41 as an alternate north-south route.

The Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations approved a resolution urging against the street vacation and encouraging the city to pursue transportation improvements independent of that proposal. Arlington Park Neighborhood Association President Mary Anne Bowie said the existing interlocal agreement has already hampered the street grid in the area, leaving just one north-south road that connects from Fruitville Road to Bahia Vista Street between U.S. 41 and Tuttle Avenue.

Considering the impending opening of the Sarasota Museum of Art, the construction of Payne Park Village and a development at the former Ringling Shopping Center, the extension of the Legacy Trail and the proposed Sarasota Orchestra venue in Payne Park, Bowie said the prospect of vacating School Avenue should be studied much more carefully.

“Closing School Avenue permanently would be tantamount to saying we really don’t want to be a walkable community,” Bowie said.

At the March 13 meeting, Planning Board member Eileen Normile presented a series of photos of the Sarasota High campus that she said showed security issues independent of School Avenue. The pictures included fencing that could be crawled under and open parking lots on the school campus. Normile and others suggested closing School Avenue would do little to deter a possible school shooter or someone else determined to improperly access the campus.

“What incremental value is this 800 feet of closed-off School Avenue when you have all these loopholes?” Normile said. “People can access the campus every which way, and I’m very confused about what the value is.”

The school district said it is working on addressing the issues Normile raised, but it remains focused on the permanent closure of School Avenue and the unification of the campus as its first priority for safety improvements.

“We’re asking for one item, at this point, which is the vacation of the right of way,” said Kelley Klepper, a consultant with Kimley-Horn who helped develop the proposal. “Are there other options? Possibly. Are there better options? Maybe.”

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