City Commission approves School Board request on 4-1 vote
After almost an hour of discussion and public comments, the Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 on May 21 to approve a new interlocal agreement that will keep School Avenue closed to 10 p.m. through the Sarasota High School campus when school is in session.
It also will forbid any pedestrian or bicycle use of the road segment during those hours, whereas the previous agreement allowed them to use the portion of the street between Tami Sola Street and Hatton Street.
The School Board unanimously approved the changes on May 15. The previous interlocal agreement called for the segment of School Avenue to be closed to motor vehicles between 6:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the “No” vote, saying she came to the meeting prepared to approve a new agreement keeping School Avenue closed until 4:30 p.m. between Tami Sola Street and Hatton Street on school days. She had not seen adequate information to support the longer period the Sarasota County School Board had requested since its members met with the City Commission during a special session on May 8, Ahearn-Koch added.
While she understood the School Board’s desire to unify the high school campus — which the road splits — she told her colleagues, “I have other concerns about the larger impact of this and what it’s going to do to the community.”
She noted that the School Board’s ultimate intent is to seek a street vacation for the affected segment of School Avenue. She wanted to see more detailed traffic analyses, she said, including the potential impacts of a street vacation on traffic at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Bahia Vista Street.
“I’m far more concerned with the security of the entire campus,” Commissioner Willie Shaw said as the board members concluded their discussion. “This is just one part of the conversation,” he added, alluding to the street vacation. “I’m far more ready to go forward with this vote.”
Commissioner Hagen Brody — who noted that he is a Sarasota High graduate — made the motion to approve the extension of the hours for closure of the street during the school days. “I’ve been in support of this for a long time now,” he said, adding, “how inspiring the students have been throughout this whole process.”
Brody pointed out, “This is a balancing of issues”: school safety on one hand; the convenience of pedestrians and bicyclists during school hours, on the other. “I don’t find that going around the block of Sarasota High School is that much of an inconvenience,” Brody said.
During a presentation at the outset of the discussion, Kathie Ebaugh, the Sarasota County School District’s planning director, explained that the reason for seeking the longer extension of the closure during school hours — from 4:30 p.m., as discussed on May 8, to 10 p.m. — is that “our campus never sleeps … even on the weekends.”
She cited a number of activities that take place in the evenings — from JROTC meetings to practice for the school’s sports teams to rehearsals for drama and choral presentations to athletic competitions. Those activities, she pointed out, occur on both sides of the campus.
Moreover, Ebaugh explained, “We teach our kids all day long not to worry about … traffic [on School Avenue].” As a result, she continued, students often cross the street while looking at their phones or carrying on conversations with friends. “They get used to not paying attention.”
In arguing later for support of the School Board’s request, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out to her colleagues, “We don’t want to discourage the programming that takes place on campus.”
Ebaugh also noted the latest school shooting to garner national headlines, which occurred on May 18 in Texas. In that case, she told the commissioners, the student who has been charged with the deaths of 10 people was able to plant devices on campus that law enforcement authorities believed to be incendiary. The longer hours of street closure during school days, she indicated, would make it less likely that someone could hide such devices on the Sarasota High campus.
Ahearn-Koch also asked whether city staff members had had time to consider the requested change from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Ryan Chapdelain, general manager of the Planning Department, told her, “We did meet with School Board staff between May 8 and today and looked at some of the implications.”
Staff will continue to work with the School Board on issues such as timing of the traffic signals in the area and pedestrian enhancements along Shade Avenue, Chapdelain added.
In response to further questions from Ahearn-Koch, city staff and Ebaugh referred to a traffic study that Kimley-Horn and Associates of Sarasota undertook in the vicinity of Sarasota High, at the behest of the School Board.
Christopher Hatton, a traffic engineer who is senior vice president of Kimley-Horn, noted that during the peak afternoon drive time, the average number of northbound motorists on School Avenue was 108; the southbound count was 139.
Because of the extension of the street closure to 10 p.m., Chapdelain said, all southbound motorists who normally would use School Avenue would have to take a different route, and that likely would be Shade Avenue.
At one point, Ahearn-Koch asked whether the studies took into account traffic patterns after the peak afternoon drive time. “I was specifically referring to the extended [School Avenue closure] hours,” she said.
Assistant City Engineer Daniel Ohrenstein replied that the studies did not entail any data collection past 6 p.m.
Still, Mayor Liz Alpert suggested that traffic would ebb after 6 p.m.
“Yes,” Ohrenstein responded.
The report also said that during a Thursday count — conducted between 4 and 6 p.m. — nine bicyclists were observed at the intersection of South School Avenue and Tami Sola Street. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24, the report added, 11 were observed at the intersection of South School Avenue and Hatton Street.
As for pedestrians: Between 4 and 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22, the report noted “a maximum of 14 observed pedestrians traveling northbound or southbound (observed at the crosswalk of South School Avenue and Tami Sola Street).”
From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24, the report continued, 16 pedestrians were observed at the crosswalk of South School Avenue and Hatton Street.
The Kimley-Horn report explained, “The study area was determined based upon discussions and meetings with City of Sarasota staff.” The analysis encompassed the following roadway segments, the report adds:
- South School Avenue from Ringling Boulevard to Bahia Vista Street.
- Shade Avenue from Ringling Boulevard to Bahia Vista Street.
- Bahia Vista Street from U.S. 41 to South School Avenue.
- Bahia Vista Street from South School Avenue to Shade Avenue.
- Ringling Boulevard from Washington Boulevard to Shade Avenue.
- Washington Boulevard/U.S. 301 from Ringling Boulevard to U.S. 41.
- U.S. 41 from Washington Boulevard/U.S. 301 to Bahia Vista Street.
Additionally, it focused on the following intersections:
- Ringling Boulevard and South School Avenue.
- Ringling Boulevard and Shade Avenue.
- U.S. 41 and Bahia Vista Street.
- Shade Avenue and Hatton Street.
- Bahia Vista Street and South School Avenue.
- Bahia Vista Street and Shade Avenue.
The seven speakers who addressed the City Commission about the proposed new interlocal agreement were split in their views. For example, Donna Judge, who said she has worked as a security guard at Sarasota High for 25 years, urged the board members to approve the School Board request.
She reported having seen drug dealers, pedophiles, patients suffering mental illness who were still wearing hospital gowns, and even a car with armed occupants who turned onto School Avenue as they were pursued by Sarasota Police Department officers. In the latter case, she pointed out, the car crashed outside the gated area of the street.
“Have you ever seen real fear in a child’s eyes?” she asked.
Conversely, DeeAnne Doudle, who was representing Arlington Park Neighborhood Association President Mary Ann Bowie, read a statement from Bowie that said residents of that community officially had gone on record in April 2017 in opposition to a permanent closure of School Avenue through the high school campus. Bowie urged the commissioners to focus on long-range transportation planning in the area, given the transformation of the original 1920s Sarasota High School into the Sarasota Museum of Art between the current Sarasota High and U.S. 41.
Likewise, city resident Mike Lasche — long known as an advocate for pedestrians and bicyclists — told the commissioners, “Transportation is a necessity, not a convenience.” He added, “Closing School Avenue won’t stop a bad guy with a gun.”
Lasche also pointed out, “It was the School Board that cut a road through a high school.”
Yet, Brett Long, who graduated from Sarasota High on May 18, reported that his research had shown that only 28 out of the 500 parcels in the Alta Vista neighborhood are in close proximity to School Avenue. “Is it worth jeopardizing the safety of students for the sake of a small group’s convenience?” he asked. “When did it become OK to discuss whether or not a human’s life is worth more than the convenience of a few residents in the nearby neighborhood?”
As the commissioners wrapped up their comments before taking the vote, Mayor Alpert pointed out, “It’s not a question of not listening to the neighborhood. It is a matter of weighing … what’s the more important thing here. The more important thing is to keep our students safe.”