I-Team: What's being done with closed schools?

Pinellas has plans to sell unused buildings

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. - What happens to a school after it's shut down? In a previous I-Team investigation in 2011, we found that many school buildings remain untouched years after they were closed. In Pinellas County, desks were still arranged in classrooms and children's drawings were on the walls.

In 2011, we found Pinellas County Schools spent $609,150 on closed school buildings in the 2009-2010 school year. Those costs include maintenance, security, and groundskeeping. Pinellas County spent more than any other Florida school district on closed buildings.

At the time, school district officials said selling the buildings was the wrong call. They hoped to eventually reopen the buildings, or find another use for them at a later time.

Two years after our initial investigation, we asked school district leaders if the buildings were still empty.

A lot has changed since 2011. Five closed schools have either been sold or are currently up for sale. Two have been turned into maintenance facilities.

"It's very important to us that we use these resources efficiently and responsibly," said district spokesperson Melanie Marquez Parra.

The new administration in Pinellas says they are working on finding uses for the remaining closed schools. The maintenance still costs the district $144,350 a year, according to the 2011-2012 budget estimates. However, that's a 76% percent drop from the 2009-2010 school year.

"When you're preparing to shut down a building, there are upfront costs that can be significant. But then, over time, once you've invested that money to shut the building down and protect it from vandalism, the maintenance costs are minimal," Marquez Parra said.

We showed the closed school buildings to commercial real estate broker John Skicewicz. He looked at the properties for our original investigation in 2011. He says the district was right to wait to sell.

"The market has done nothing but improve since then. The market then was at a historic weak point," Skicewicz said.

"Charter schools would love to have a crack at this," he said, regarding Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater.

There are still four Pinellas County schools that still sit unused. The district says three of them were supposed to be used for Head Start programs, but the county lost that grant this year.

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