Planning Board members unanimously voted to recommend denial of School Board request
(Editor’s note: This article was updated on the afternoon of May 4 to correct a statement about one of the speakers during the Planning Board public hearing. The early version of this story reported that Chet Pletzke, an Arlington Park resident who worked for 30 years on the faculty of a medical school in Bethesda, Md., was in favor of the closure. He is opposed to it.)
The last item of new business scheduled on the Sarasota City Commission’s May 6 agenda has been at the center of a figurative tug-of-war for many years.
The Sarasota County School Board is asking the City Commission to vacate an approximately 800-foot-long segment of School Avenue from Tami-Sola Street to a point just south of Hatton Street. The argument Sarasota County School leaders have made is that the action is necessary to enhance security for the students at Sarasota High School, especially as school shootings continue to take place across the United States.
Residents of the area, however, have protested the request, pointing to the fact that School Avenue is one of the few remaining north-south routes through the city. They contend that the School Board can take other measures to protect its students.
On May 25, 2018, in the wake of the deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the City Commission voted unanimously in favor of implementing longer time restrictions affecting traffic on School Avenue adjacent to Sarasota High. As a result of a new interlocal agreement with the School Board, School Avenue through the Sarasota High campus has been closed from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on days when school is in session.
The backup material for the May 6 agenda notes, “There are concerns with vacating the street due to uncertainty of how schools are going to function in the future and if Sarasota High School will eventually relocate.”
The evening session of the City Commission meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the Commission Chambers at City Hall, which is located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota.
More ‘cons’ than ‘pros’
On March 13, the city’s Planning Board members voted unanimously to recommend that the City Commission deny the School Board’s request for the permanent closure of the segment of School Avenue.
The majority of the 13 people who spoke during the public hearing were residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the school. They implored the Planning Board to consider the consequences of the permanent vacation.
Stan Zimmerman, a former city commissioner and past leader of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association, pointed out that the School Board has been seeking the street vacation for decades, although representatives of the school district have framed the latest request in the context of the violence that occurs on campuses across the country.
“A vacation is permanent,” Zimmerman cautioned. “You can’t undo it,” unless both sides agree to backtrack.
Second, Zimmerman noted that Planning Board Chair Eileen Normile earlier had read the applicable section of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which — he indicated — made it plain that approval of the vacation would be a violation of the plan.
The staff report provided to the board members in advance of the meeting advised them that the relevant section of city law is Section IV-1306 of the Zoning Code. The standards for review for a street vacation are as follows, the staff report noted:
- “The benefit to the general public of the existing street, right-of-way, easement or non-fee interest;
- The rearrangement of streets, rights-of way, easements or non-fee interests which will be required to secure a regular and harmonious system for traffic circulation if the vacation is granted;
- “Whether the street, right-of way, easement or non-fee interest has been improved, and the extent to which it is currently, or in the future will be, utilized by the general public;
- “Whether the vacation is proposed in conjunction with an application for development approval for adjacent property; and
- “Whether the proposed vacation is in the public interest.”
“Security is an imperfect goal. You’re not going to have 100% security until you’re in the grave,” Zimmerman said.
Further, even though the School Board members have committed to maintaining the road, Zimmerman pointed out, “Once it’s theirs, they could build over it.”
Former City Commissioner Susan Chapman concurred with Zimmerman. “They claim it’s about school safety,” she told the Planning Board members, referring to school district leaders. Yet, the School Board allowed Sarasota High School to open the large parking lot that fronts on Bahia Vista Street, Chapman continued.
Other testimony pointed to safety hazards posed by students and parents turning out of that parking lot.
Alternatively, two Sarasota High students and a security guard at the school urged the Planning Board to approve the vacation. The students, especially, talked of their and their peers’ need to feel secure.
“I truly understand the inconvenience” for residents that the vacation would pose, Baylee Stepina said. Nonetheless, she continued, “It’s the safety of our students” that is at the heart of the matter.
During the opening presentation on the petition, David Jones, principal of Sarasota High, told the Planning Board members, “If my students aren’t safe, and they’re not confident that they’re safe, learning is definitely compromised.”
He added that he was a teacher in Littleton, Colo., in April 1999 when the Columbine shootings occurred. His brother was a sergeant with the Denver Police Department, Jones noted, and his sister-in-law was lead investigator for the Coroner’s Office. “I guess I got a lot of inside information about the horror of that tragedy.”
A school shooting “can happen,” Jones continued. “We pray that it doesn’t happen.”
Jones added that he supervises 2,118 students at Sarasota High. “Those are my babies.”
During the board members’ questioning of the school district representatives, Chair Normile showed them a series of photos she had taken the previous day around the campus, about 1 p.m., she said.
The first showed a fence in the vicinity of Hatton Street and School Avenue. “The bottom of that fence is 12 to 14 inches above the ground,” Normile noted. “An adult can get under that fence.”
Her second photo showed the gate closing off School Avenue from Hatton. “Also well above the ground,” she pointed out.
Another photo showed the school’s ball field on Tami Sola, which made it clear that it would be easy for a person to climb from the top of the fence to the bleachers.
Jody Dumas, executive director of the Facilities Services Division of the school district, told Normile, “Certainly, you point out our vulnerabilities on campus. … As a district, we have to bite off clusters at a time in terms of how we handle those situations.”
District staff is working to resolve the issues shown in her photos, he added. A team is assessing situations at schools countywide, Dumas continued, taking a systematic approach.
A clear path
After the presentations, public comments and discussion, Planning Board member David Morriss made the motion to recommend that he and his colleagues deny the School Board request, referencing the city’s regulations regarding street vacations.
Morris added, “Equating the vacating of the property with safety is kind of tenuous. … I don’t think any of the arguments met any of the standards [for a street vacation].”
The better means of dealing with the situation, he continued, would be to modify the interlocal agreement with the School Board that the City Commission approved in May 2018.
Vice Chair Damien Blumetti talked of the fact that he has a young daughter, but he felt that the street vacation was not the only means of ensuring the safety of the Sarasota High students. He agreed with Morris that the better option would be to work on an amendment to the interlocal agreement.
“Giving it away” Chair Normile said of the street segment, “is not a benefit in any way.”