Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, December 18, 2011
HOB School grand opening set for Monday
Middle school students moved in a week before

When the obligatory ceremonial ribbon is snipped Monday evening at the new Horace O'Bryant School to mark its grand opening, the 64-foot-tall building will become a permanent part of Key West's landscape.

So will the bitter political debate that ignited when those too-tall tilt walls went up in February, crashing through the neighborhood's 25-foot height cap and putting the School District and City Hall into an embarrassing public fight that ended in "conflict resolution" sessions.

The School District won in the end, yet agreed to lower the roof pitches of the middle school's second phase, which will include an elementary school, to at least 30 feet.

Everyone involved in the HOB dust-up has agreed only on one lesson learned: Never again.

"I hope that what came out of this is a message to everybody that we live in a very tightly knit community and we need to have respect for each other," said City Commissioner Teri Johnston, whose district includes the Leon Street school. "Although there were some painful moments, hopefully we have learned our lesson."

The second phase of the $38.6 million, seven-building project is on schedule, Chief Financial Officer Michael Kinneer said, and will welcome Glynn Archer Elementary School students by fall 2013.

For old HOB students, who moved into the new digs on Monday, the political drama takes a back seat, Johnston said. About 700 Key West children have left behind a gloomy building with leaky, rotting ceilings and now take lessons in brand-new classrooms, a project fueled by a federal stimulus loan.

"It's a major accomplishment and we should all be proud," Johnston said.

On that point -- the delivery to the community of a modern, technologically advanced school -- the City Commission and the School Board can agree that the year's strife was worth it.

"Absolutely," School Board Vice Chairman Andy Griffiths said. "The kids are so excited to be in the new classrooms that don't leak. It's a wonderful school for kids. Parents will be smiling and so will the faculty and staff, and especially the students."

While Johnston maintains the School District erred in communications and good neighbor standards, Griffiths said the city staff approved plans for drainage and other preliminary construction issues.

"They saw the plans," Griffiths said. "Nobody ever said anything because we were building a school."

HOB was planned and built like all the other county schools, he said. In the future, he added, the School District needs to make sure a scale model is created to show the community the full picture.

"Nobody had a picture of what it would look like," Griffiths said. "We had drawings, but we never had a mock-up."

At the time of the HOB wall-raising, Joe Burke was the schools superintendent. Residents cried foul, and activist Margaret Romero -- who later ran for mayor and lost -- went after the district with online petitions and a website devoted to proving that the schools played dirty with the neighborhood height restriction.

Romero led a movement that demanded the school chop down the 64-foot walls to 25 feet, per neighborhood rules. Griffiths called the idea "insane," and other board members couldn't fathom billing taxpayers for a giant redo.

The School District legally trumped the argument that it had violated land development regulations by turning in a new set of projected numbers that say the new HOB will not bring with it an increased "student capacity" of more than 5 percent. That made HOB exempt from local laws.

The K-8 school will have a combined enrollment of fewer than 1,000 students, the district reported in July.

Student capacity is determined by a formula based on a student head count and factored in with the square footage of buildings and the percentage of floor space used. The figure is vetted through the Florida Department of Education, through its Florida Inventory of School Houses.

Dick blamed Burke for the flap with the city.

"We don't ever want to come into this problem again," Dick said.

The School District is set to christen the new school at 5:30 p.m., with an open house running until 7 p.m.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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