City Commission to address proposed changes on May 21
On May 15, the Sarasota County School Board took the first step toward enhanced safety on School Avenue, which splits the Sarasota High School campus.
On a unanimous vote, the board approved a revised interlocal agreement with the City of Sarasota that would close the street to all users between Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. whenever Sarasota High is in session.
School Board member Caroline Zucker made the motion, and board member Shirley Brown seconded it.
“We need to have our school facilities secure,” Brown said, “and the perimeter fencing isn’t really secure if, in fact, we have to leave it open for the sidewalks.”
Brown talked of hearing high school students discussing the fear they feel whenever the fire alarm goes off, wondering whether it will be safe for them to go outside. She indicated the alarm might be a ploy used by an active shooter. As she understands it, Brown continued, a recent change in state policy allows school staffs up to 3 minutes to make a determination about evacuating a building when the fire alarm goes off.
“This is not the kind of schools that I went to,” Brown pointed out. “Our kids are living in a different reality.”
Whether the new hours of School Avenue closure will go into effect is up to the Sarasota City Commission, which is scheduled to vote on the revised interlocal agreement during its regular meeting on May 21. The item is listed under Unfinished Businessduring the afternoon portion of that session, which will begin at 2:30 p.m. at City Hall in downtown Sarasota.
On May 15, School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler encouraged the city commissioners to approve the measure. She and Vice Chair Jane Goodwin both said they hoped it would be the first step in a process leading to a permanent street vacation for the affected segment of School Avenue.
During public comments prior to the vote, Matt Woodall, who lives in the Alta Vista community near Sarasota High, pledged his support and that of a number of residents he said he had spoken with who live on Tuttle Avenue and on Wood Street. Several of them have committed to participating in the public process for the proposed street vacation, he said.
They want to ensure “the reduced likelihood of an egregious assault” on a student or staff member on the Sarasota High campus, Woodall added.
During its regular meeting in late March, the members of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association discussed the School Board initiatives and unanimously agreed that they wanted to keep School Avenue open to pedestrians and bicyclists when school is in session, past president Stan Zimmerman told The Sarasota News Leader. They also will oppose the street vacation, he added.
School Avenue and Shade Avenue are critically important to the residents as north-south routes in the city, Zimmerman said.
When the School Board and the City Commission conducted a special meeting on May 8 to discuss potential action regarding School Avenue, Larry Silvermintz, president of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association, told the city commissioners, “I implore [you] to vote sensibly … and to come up with logical solutions.” Although the School Board is targeting members of the public with the proposed changes, he continued, “staff and students do atrocious things. … If you have the students fenced in, how are they going to escape or take cover if something happens? … At which point is it going to be safe enough?”
Another speaker that evening, Mary Anne Bowie, president of the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association, told the board members, “Currently, we have massive gridlock on Tuttle [Avenue]; we have gridlock on Bahia Vista [Street], especially when … children are being picked up [from school].” As an urban planner, she continued, she knows “what we need is a larger context for transportation and for traffic.”
However, Bowie did support the closure of School Avenue through the Sarasota High campus when school is in session, she said.
“Closing School Avenue won’t stop bad people from doing anything,” Shawn Cacciola, a Sarasota High student, told the board members that evening. “But it’s a step in the right direction. … We don’t just want to feel safe. We want to be safe. Closing School Avenue is, in my opinion, the best option for us.”
School Board worries
During the School Board’s May 15 meeting, Brown pointed out, “We cannot allow pedestrians and bikers and strollers and scooters” to get onto the Sarasota High property during school hours.
An active shooter situation never may develop on the Sarasota High campus, Vice Chair Goodwin said, “and hopefully, it will never happen …” Still, she continued, everyday occurrences such as “somebody looking for a fight” or someone interested in spiriting away his girlfriend, for examples, would be thwarted by the new hours of street closure. “Whatever their intentions — good or bad — they [will have to] go through the front door. They won’t go through the entrances on the sidewalk.”
The revised interlocal agreement also calls for the construction of fences and gates across School Avenue to the south of the intersection with Hatton Street and approximately 300 feet north of the intersection with Tami Sola Street. Additionally, an automatic vehicle access gate would be erected to the north of School Avenue’s intersection with Tami Sola Street.
Furthermore, pedestrian gates “shall be installed across the adjacent sidewalks at intersections with Hatton Street and Tami Sola Street,” the revised interlocal agreement says. The construction and maintenance would be the responsibility of the School Board.
Chair Ziegler thanked Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe and school district Planning Director Kathie Ebaugh for all the effort they put into the negotiations with city staff. Although members of the public think the changes are related to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland on Feb. 14, Ziegler added, “this has been a long-time discussion.”
“We are responsible for our students as soon as they come onto our campus, until they leave,” she pointed out.