On the densely populated island of Key West, where space is a prized commodity, two groups are vying for office and classroom space at the May Sands School complex on United Street.
In one corner is the Key West Montessori Charter School that wants to expand from its current location in the school's 200 and 300 buildings. In the other corner are the tenants that would be displaced by such a move, including the Monroe County Teachers Federal Credit Union, (MCTCU) the Child Find organization, and the local chapter of Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA).
At Tuesday night's School Board meeting in Key West, representatives from Montessori and the LVA made their case to the board and Schools Superintendent Mark Porter, who ultimately must decide the outcome.
The issue was not placed on the agenda, however, so no formal action could be taken, but behind the scenes, an email lobbying campaign appears to have begun.
"Our charter allows us to have over 200 students," said Montessori Principal Lynn Barras. "And we do have a waiting list. Currently we have 120 students. We just don't have the space to expand. I tried to get my presentation put on the agenda, but the superintendent said he wasn't ready to sponsor the project at this time. I told him that my board is pressuring me to make this happen. We are in a crisis situation, and we need the space."
In response, LVA Executive Director Mary Casanova said "My feelings are that we would like to not have to move for the third time in three years, if we could help it. Not only does it disrupt our program, we have zero funds for a move. We were not promised, but we were given the impression that we would be able to stay there for a while, and not have to move again, which we did in July of 2012."
Montessori moved into May Sands in July 2010, forcing the LVA to move to a different building on the same campus and bouncing the Boys and Girls Club of the Florida Keys out of the building altogether. The school district also had to move its GED program.
An "army of volunteers and paid professionals" got to work stripping tile from the floor, fixing the air conditioning, and making other repairs and modifications, at a cost of about $190,000, ($141,000 of which was reimbursed by the district.) Six bathrooms were also constructed.
In January 2012, however, leaks in the old building led to floods, and eventually, mold. Barras began looking afor another district building, including locations at Key West High School, and another on Sugarloaf Key. None of the options were acceptable, however, so Barras approached the district for a better deal.
With the help of district officials Christina McPherson, Theresa Axford, and Porter, Montessori was allowed to move out of the 400 building, and into the 200 and 300 buildings, although Barras maintained her office in the 400 building.
The Literacy Volunteers were bumped over to the 100 building. The ACE student program had to move out, and the Keys Center Academy, which had been planning to move into May Sands, ended up elsewhere.
"This was just enough room for our classes," Barras said. "We had six classrooms, but no administrative rooms."
Then, in October, the district informed Barras they had inspected the 400 building and determined that due to its worsening condition, she would have to move her office elsewhere.
The district offered her use of the nearby Ruth Hargrove Building, but Barras turned it down, as it required a walk down United Street, which has no sidewalks.
"It wasn't really a safe route for the kids to get to the administrative office," Barras said.
So in May, the district moved the United Teachers of Monroe to the Hargrove Building, and Barras moved into the 100 building.
Meanwhile, in February, the Montessori board president sent a letter to the district, asking them to kick out LVA, Child Find, and the teacher's credit union, so Montessori could take over the rest of the 100 building.
"I met with Porter in February, March, and April to try to move this along," Barras said. "We said, 'let's make this happen.'"
Currently, Montessori pays rent of about $5 per square foot, or $43,000 per year. The district is on the hook for maintenance.
The situation appears to have reached a stalemate, as Porter has indicated that Montessori's request for immediate action may be too much too soon.
"One of the very first challenges I had to deal with in this job was the deterioration of the 400 building," Porter said. "We had 100-plus kids in a facility that was conditionally unsafe, which we had to immediately correct. Unfortunately, we had to displace some programs to make that happen. We've been able to meet most of [Montessori's] current needs."
Porter added that he's hoping to find a win-win solution to the problem.
"We'll keep doing the best we can to balance interests," he said. "I think we can provide for some of the immediate needs, but maybe not as quickly as they'd like.
"Location is critically important to them, which limits the options of meeting those expectations," he added. "We're also trying to work with some of the existing tenants, and as space can be made available, we'll try to hand that space over."
The MCTCU has found other space, and is preparing to move later this year. But the idea of moving again rankles LVA's Casanova.
"We moved to the 100 building," she said. "We painted and got volunteers from the Navy to help us. Now it's a year later, and they want us to move again."
Casanova, whose organization pays about $200 per month in rent, is aware of the political muscle of many Montessori parents, and is resigned to the likelihood of having to pull up stakes again. She's hoping if it does come to pass, it will be on terms the LVA can survive.
"We would like to get a space at the same rate, and we would like them to move us, because we have no money for moving," Casanova said. "If we could get a rent credit for our extra staff hours that we're going to have to put into moving, that would be on our wish list. We'd also like to have at least three to six months notice, and to not have to move during the blisteringly hot summer months.
"We're in a tough situation," Casanova said. "We can't really exist without the non-profit rent rate they gave us. "We're extremely grateful for it."