By Sean Bowes

After months of uncertainty, concern and fear, residents of West Meadows and Richmond Place are resting a little easier, because for now, a proposed school will not be built on Highwoods Preserve Pkwy. After more than four hours of listening to traffic experts, concerned parents, attorneys and home owners at their meeting on January 12, six of the seven Tampa City Council members (one was absent) agreed that a new charter school was not in New Tampa’s best interest.

Since December 2, when the Hillsborough County School Board (HCSB) approved the plans for ten new K-8 charter schools (including one sought to be built on a 17.9-acre plot of land on Highwoods Preserve Pkwy. at Brinegar Cir.), some residents of West Meadows and Richmond Place have been concerned about the introduction of a new “traffic nightmare” to an already congested Highwoods Preserve Pkwy.

For the school to be built, the Tampa City Council would have had to grant a re-zoning permit for the Advantage Academy of Hillsborough Inc., a charter school company, to build the school. The land, which currently is zoned for multifamily housing or a church, was strongly pursued by Mike Strader, president of the Charter School Assoc. who says that his company specifically chose that plot of land because of its potential and lush, natural setting.

The proposed school could have been home to a student body of 1,000, as well as an attached pre-school center which had room for 250 more children, a number that made members of the Home Owners Association (HOA) at West Meadows very nervous.

To protest the proposed charter school, residents from West Meadows and Richmond Place skipped their dinners (some grumbled about missing a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game) and pulled together to send the message that they did not want a charter school to be constructed at the doorstep to their neighborhoods. Residents from both communities filled three chartered buses (paid for by the West Meadows Homeowners Assn.), while others residents caravanned in their own cars, to argue their case at the Jan. 12 final City Council hearing in downtown Tampa.

Most of the residents who would be impacted by the school said its traffic was their primary concern, while others said they didn’t see the reason for another school in New Tampa, considering that nine out of 10 elementary and middle schools in the area received an ‘A’ rating (the tenth school scored a ‘B’) from the Florida Dept. of Education (DoE).

“If you look at our (New Tampa) schools and compare them with all of the charter schools in Hillsborough County, you can see that ours perform well above them in reading, math and science,” said Ruth Hall, a West Meadows resident and president of Air Trust Inc., an education consulting company.

Hall brought public records from the DoE to show that New Tampa’s schools do average better scores than most of the charter schools in Hillsborough County.

At the hearing, Michael Horner, the planning consultant for the project, said that it was in the community’s best interest to offer parents more options for their children’s education and that a charter school adds variety to their choices.

“One of the first things a person asks when they are about to move into a home is, “How many schools are in the area?,’” said Horner.

Rhonda McMahon, the principal at Hilda T. Turner Elementary in Live Oak Preserve (only a mile or two from the proposed charter school site) said she regularly sees traffic problems outside her school, which only has 987 students (compared with the 1,000 students and 250-child day care center proposed for the charter school) and that the introduction of a school on Highwoods Preserve Pkwy. would mean trouble for travelers on the two-lane road.

State Rep. Shawn Harrison (R-New Tampa), also opposed the charter school at the hearing. Harrison read from a City Council transcript from 11 years ago when he was the District 7 (which includes all of the city-based developments in New Tampa) City Council member and made the original motion for the current zoning for the property He says he would still like to see the land used for a church, as it was zoned for more than a decade ago.

“Nothing has changed,” said Harrison. “That land is still not fit for a school of that size.”

And, when it was time for the current Tampa City Council members to vote on whether or not the school would be built (after more than four hours of debate from supporters and opponents), the vote was 6-0 for denying the re-zoning permit. Citywide council member Mary Mulhern was absent for the vote.

City Council member Mike Suarez stated that he voted against granting the charter school a permit solely because of safety concerns.

“There have been too many pedestrian casualties already in the City of Tampa and we have to take safety into consideration,” said Suarez.

Councilwoman Lisa Montelione, who represents New Tampa in District 7, also said she voted against the petitioners permit because of concern for pedestrian safety.

For now, the 17-acre property continues to be zoned for multi-family housing, or a church, leaving a forest of thick trees and green landscape for residents to enjoy on their drives into their neighborhoods.

“It feels like we just won a war!,” said one West Meadows resident as he left the City Council meeting.

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