New interlocal agreements designed to make more school facilities available for public recreational use

Plans tentatively call for first one to go before School Board and County Commission for votes in April

Kathie Ebaugh. File photo

If all goes as Sarasota County School District and Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) staff hope, by April, the two local governments will have a new agreement in place that will open up opportunities for the public to use school facilities for recreational purposes.

The overarching goal is to make better use of the land and facilities at schools after class hours and during the summer, Kathie Ebaugh, director of planning for the district, explained to about 85 people attending the 2017 Convocation of Governments. The event — to which all the county’s elected leaders and administrative staff were invited — was held on Jan. 20 at the Suncoast Technical College on Beneva Road in Sarasota.

The interlocal agreement will call for use of county facilities first, because county staff would have to consider the expense of maintenance when using school grounds, Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) Department, pointed out. Teams seeking facilities for events would have more opportunities to find them under the proposed partnership, Ebaugh and Brown explained.

It has taken about 18 months of discussions and crafting of language to create this new agreement, which will replace one that has been in place about 15 years, Ebaugh said. Because of the restrictive nature of the existing document, she added, school and county staff agreed that it would be better to draft a new one instead of trying to amend the existing one. The current document focuses on joint use of just four of the district’s schools, she noted.

The new interlocal is designed to broaden the potential for community groups to use school facilities, Ebaugh said. “We would not want to get into the business of operating parks,” she added. The goal is to have the PRNR undertake that responsibility, Ebaugh said, as it is best suited to do that.

A second interlocal agreement Ebaugh continued, would enable district and PRNR staff to collaborate on improvements to specific schools to broaden their potential for community use. That one is still just in the draft stage with staffs at the district and county level, she told The Sarasota News Leader.

That second agreement would enable the county and the district to use the Venice Middle School campus as the site of a pilot program. The rear of the campus has enough space for three new sports fields, Ebaugh explained during the Convocation, which would be the minimum requirement for the county in considering use of a school site.

(From left) Venice City Councilman Rick Cautero, Superintendent of Schools Lori White and School Board Chair Caroline Zucker listen to discussion on Jan. 20. Rachel Hackney photo

Earlier, Brown told the attendees that the county implemented a new parks master plan in 2016. “The county wants to take on the role of a regional park provider.”

Ebaugh also noted that the district has been working to ameliorate drainage problems on the Venice Middle site.

The school district’s Capital Improvement Program includes $1 million for the School Board’s share of improvements at Venice Middle, she added, while the county has committed about $2 million to the pilot project, to construct new restrooms and a concession stand on the campus.

Carolyn Brown. Rachel Hackney photo

Another reason Venice Middle seems to be the best school for an initial test of the new agreement, she continued, is “there’s more and more kids who are moving [to] and living in the Venice area.”

Atwater Elementary in North Port has the potential to be another site for this type of partnership between the district and the county, Ebaugh added.

“This is real exciting, to see this collaboration coming together,” County Commissioner Charles Hines told Ebaugh and Brown. “We all represent the same taxpayers.”

Ebaugh concurred with him. “At the end, this is all about the taxpayers’ dollars. They have invested in our lands and fields and parks.”

Hines added, “I look forward to seeing this agreement implemented.”