City Commission agrees to joint meeting with School Board on May 8 to discuss extending hours School Avenue is closed on school days

Commissioners ask staff for background material to prepare them to address other issues, as well, including the potential vacation of School Avenue

An aerial map shows School Avenue splitting the Sarasota High School campus. Image from Google Maps

The Sarasota City Commission has agreed unanimously to hold a joint meeting with the Sarasota County School Board from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 8. The topic will be a School Board proposal for extending the hours School Avenue is closed during school days in the area of Sarasota High School.

The session will be conducted in the City Commission Chambers at Sarasota City Hall in downtown Sarasota.

Commissioner Willie Shaw’s motion stipulated that the discussion will focus not just on the proposed extension of hours. The city board members also will be prepared to talk about a March 22 School Board vote calling for the City of Sarasota’s vacation of School Avenue through the Sarasota High campus. Further, the city commissioners agreed on April 16 that they would renew their request for a vocational and technical training facility in North Sarasota, an idea they have broached the past two years with the School Board. The topic arose during the Convocations of Governments that the School Board hosted in January 2017 and again in January this year.

Finally, Shaw stipulated that city staff provide the commissioners materials before the meeting to prepare them to talk about the potential impacts on surrounding neighborhoods of any changes to the School Avenue situation.

At the suggestion of Wood Street resident Pearlee Frieberg — during the City Commission’s April 16 regular meeting — the developer of Payne Park Village, which is to be built on the northern end of School Avenue, across from Payne Park, will be included in city outreach regarding the prospect of an extended street closure or vacation.

Frieberg reminded the commissioners during her public comments that, last year, they approved 135 dwelling units for Payne Park Village.

City Commissioner Hagen Brody. File photo

During close to 20 minutes of discussion on April 16, Commissioner Hagen Brody voiced frustration that he had tried since February to get staff to schedule a commission discussion about extended closure times for School Avenue during the school day. “I asked for this item to be placed on the agenda weeks ago, weeks ago, and it hasn’t.”

On the morning of Feb. 15 — the day after 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland were shot and killed by a former student — Brody sent an email to Sarasota County School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler, schools Superintendent Todd Bowden, Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and other city staff members, saying, “It’s with a heavy heart and sense of urgency that I am writing as I’m sure you feel similarly this morning. We have been talking about securing the Sarasota High Campus up to and including vacating the relevant portion of School Avenue for too long. This cannot wait any longer. I would like an action item brought before the full City Commission as soon as possible to address this urgent issue.”

“As you may be aware,” Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown told Brody on April 16, “we have had a lot of communication with the School Board,” specifically on the issue of the interlocal agreement between the city and the School Board that governs the closing hours of School Avenue when Sarasota High is in session. Brown indicated that city staff, according to protocol, had to wait for the School Board to request a discussion. City staff was aware of the School Board’s desire to extend the hours, he continued, but not the details.

The attorney for the School Board had to draft a revised interlocal agreement, Brown said; it has to win approval from City Attorney Robert Fournier’s staff. “It is not as simple as putting something on the agenda and giving [the School Board] the expanded time.”

Clearing up questions

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch had pulled the item from the board’s Consent Agenda No. 1 of routine business items. She asked whether staff would provide the commissioners all the background material the city has that is pertinent to the issue, including “any alternatives that have been proposed.”

During the discussion, Brown first explained that the School Board’s formal request for the May 8 joint meeting indicated that amending the interlocal agreement would be the only item on the workshop agenda.

However, he acknowledged that School Board members could bring up related issues.

“Of course, they will,” Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie replied.

Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. File photo

“I don’t see how we can have a joint meeting and not discuss [the potential of a street vacation]. … It would seem to me that we would be handicapped” by not having background information on that subject, as well, Freeland Eddie added.

However, she continued, “There is a significant concern and pushback from residents around School Avenue in opposition to this proposal. I have no problem having a joint meeting, but I think we need to be prepared to discuss that item.”

While the street vacation likely will come up, Brown continued, “That’s a longer process.” It would necessitate a community workshop, the completion of a traffic study by the School Board and public hearings.

“The last thing I like to do is go into a meeting and not have background material and not understand [the relevant issues],” Ahearn-Koch told City Manager Tom Barwin and Brown.

“There’s nothing I believe that you will not have pertinent to that discussion,” Brown assured her.

Freeland Eddie raised the point, then, of the vocational/technical training facility. Referring to the workshop, she added, “I just think that this is a great opportunity for us to have a meeting that goes somewhere versus having a meeting to schedule another meeting.”

“This is a workshop,” Brown pointed out, so the city commissioners will not be able to take a vote on anything.

“I just want us to use our time the best that we can,” Freeland Eddie told him.

“I’m OK having this meeting,” Brody said.

Then he added that he understood city staff already had received a copy of the draft interlocal amendment that would extend the closure hours on School Avenue during the school day.

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch listens as Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown makes a report during a 2017 City Commission meeting. File photo

School district staff had sent it to the city staff, Brown acknowledged, but “it had a lot of errors in it.”

“Outside of typographical errors, we know what they’re asking for,” Brody responded. “I’m asking the same thing of this commission.” School Avenue should be closed to the public during the school day, he added. “I would like to see us have a joint meeting [with the School Board] on the job center idea and the street vacation issue,” Brody said, and deal separately with the extended closure of School Avenue for the rest of this school year and the next school year.

Brody added that he understood it could take six months for the street vacation to go into effect, after the School Board formally requests it. Nonetheless, he continued, the commissioners have received 80 letters from students at Sarasota High, who have asked that the campus be closed to the public. “I’m a little frustrated that it’s taken this long [to do something].”