Current and former city commissioners urge the School Board to get involved in county plans for addressing chronic homelessness, but School Board Chair Shirley Brown says the board will not insert itself in the matter
Two current and two past Sarasota city commissioners were among 10 speakers who urged the Sarasota County School Board this week to “choose to weigh in,” as Kate Lowman put it, on the potential for the County Commission to establish a come-as-you-are homeless shelter near Booker Middle and High schools and the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in north Sarasota.
“We have to have you at the table,” Mayor Willie Shaw told the School Board members during their regular meeting on Dec. 8. “We need your support. It is paramount to the welfare and safety of our children that you be there,” he added.
In spite of the pleas, School Board Chair Shirley Brown told the speakers, who addressed her and three of her colleagues during the Hearing of Citizens portion of the session, “We will not have a vote on this.”
(Vice Chair Caroline Zucker was absent because of a health matter, Brown told the audience.)
Brown expressed surprise that the School Board was being brought into the controversial issue, which has seen the County Commission and City Commission take distinctively different paths in trying to address homelessness in the community.
Brown added that the only action the School Board would take would be to ensure it has safety mechanisms in place at Booker Middle and Booker High if the shelter ends up being established near them.
Further, Brown said, she would make certain that staff delivered to the County Commission a copy of all the speakers’ comments about the shelter.
“I understand that no final decision has been made” regarding the facility site site, she added. “Perhaps before they make that, they’ll hear your comments.”
During a Dec. 8 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader following the meeting, Brown compared the School Board’s refraining from interfering with County Commission actions to comparable County Commission decisions to stay out of School Board matters. “That’s the same thing,” she said.
(See the related story in this issue.)
The issue of county staff undertaking due diligence on sites near Booker Middle and High schools and the Taylor Complex first arose during the public comments portion of the Nov. 6 joint meeting of the City and County commissions regarding the best ways to help the community’s homeless population. The focus of concern is the home of Bucko’s, an office equipment and furniture store that stands at 1923 Myrtle St. in Sarasota.
On Nov. 17, Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services to the homeless, explained that Bucko’s is one of three sites remaining out of almost 100 initially reviewed as possible locations for a homeless shelter. The other two sites under current review are at 4001 Butler Ave. and 3941/3942 Butler Ave. Those also are close to the schools and the Taylor Complex, as evidenced by a map Applebee showed the county commissioners.
On Dec. 8, City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out to the School Board that approximately 100 students walk from the two schools to the Taylor Complex for after-school programs during the regular school year. In the summertime, she continued, up to 200 students participate in programs at the recreational facility. Further, she said, five daycare centers in that area would be close to the shelter.
When people prepare to move into a new community, Freeland Eddie continued, they consider three things: property values; security in specific neighborhoods; and the quality and safety of the schools. “And that is why your consideration of this issue is so important,” she added. “What security parameters can you [as a government board] institute [as a] guarantee for students who will now be vulnerable to individuals who frequent this … non-residential shelter?”
“These are our children,” Shaw told the board. “They are not as safe as we would like to think they are [if the shelter is put in that location].”
Referring to the new construction at Booker High School, which was completed in 2014, Shaw continued, “You went and spent millions of dollars to build one of the most beautiful campuses in this county … It is a showplace.”
Booker Middle School and the Taylor Complex are showplaces, too, he said.
The School Board’s interest and involvement in the decision about where the shelter will be placed, Shaw said, “is important to the lives of our students.”
For the county to establish the facility in the Myrtle Street neighborhood, he continued, is “disrespectful. It is truly, truly an offensive, offensive notion.”
Former Sarasota Mayor Mollie Cardamone told the School Board members, “I’m surprised that you’re not involved,” though she added, “I sense a reluctance on the part of you to get involved.”
Cardamone urged the board members to direct Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe to work with the County Commission on the matter or to make themselves available for discussions with the commissioners.
Eileen Normile, the former chair of the city’s Independent Police Advisory Panel, who served on the City Commission from November 2014 until May of this year, pointed out that the Bucko’s site is within 60 feet of the Taylor Complex. Residents of the shelter — including potentially “transient sex offenders,” she said — will be able to come and go as they please during the day.
Maryellin Kirkwood, who identified herself as the parent of two Booker High graduates, noted that the high school would be within two city blocks of the shelter. “All that we can do is raise the alarm and hope that someone will hear us,” she added.
Allowing the shelter to be established so close to the schools and the recreational center will send the wrong messages to residents, said Laurel Park homeowner Kate: “The stability of your community is not important to us” and “Protecting your kids is a low priority.”
Trevor Harvey, president of the Sarasota County Chapter of the NAACP, told the board, “I’m the first to say there needs to be a quality shelter built for the homeless, but it needs to be in the right area.”
Sheriff Tom Knight “can promise law enforcement presence” at the shelter, which the Sheriff’s Office has been asked to operate, Harvey noted. However, Harvey continued, Knight does not have sufficient manpower to handle all the problems that will arise if the shelter is located so close to schools and the Taylor Complex. Among the homeless residents will be sexual predators, pedophiles and drug abusers, Harvey continued.
Knight told the News Leader after the Nov. 17 County Commission meeting that the safety of the neighborhood where the shelter is established will be his top priority.
If county staff were considering a shelter site near Riverview High School or Sarasota High School, Harvey pointed out in his School Board meeting remarks, “Would we be here today addressing this body?”
City Editor Roger Drouin contributed to this story.