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Fate of Lee Elementary, gutted by inferno, is still unknown

Parents outraged by district's response
Posted at 9:59 PM, Jan 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-11 23:11:10-05

TAMPA, Fla. — On Sept. 12 a day after Hurricane Irma ripped through Florida, Lee Elementary School was gutted by an electrical fire as crews energized the building.

The historic school, established in 1906 is the oldest brick building in the district. Located at 305 E. Columbus Dr. it has become a place where young minds have been challenged and grown for more than a century. It has survived hurricanes, tropical storms, and the footsteps of countless elementary school students passing through it’s halls.

It could not survive an electrical fire that gutted the building. The 320 students and 47 faculty and staff are now housed at Lockhart Elementary School. Parents tell ABC Action News they’ve asked the district for updates about the fate of the school. Will the district rebuild from scratch? Or be able to salvage the fire worn brick and keep it’s charm?

Three-alarm fire at Robert E. Lee Elementary school

“We want it rebuilt,” Karl Messenger, a concerned parent said. “I think what we are looking for is a vision not, oh well, silence…we are waiting and well we don’t know and use these great phrases. What do you actually want to happen? And I want the truth. And if the truth is we want to pocket $20 million and fix up all the bad schools then tell me the truth.”

Chris Farkas, the Chief Operating Officer for Hillsborough County Public Schools, said that is not their intention at all. Farkas said they are waiting to see how much money the insurance company will pay out. Once they get a number Farkas said the district can move forward with a plan to renovate the historic structure or build a new school, or find other options if they don’t have enough money to do that.

“I do express my disappointment we expect more from you this is an unprecedented situation,” Taryn Sabia said.

Sabia said she’s tried to get answers from the district about the fate of the school for months.  

“We should be contacted and hearing things weekly to make sure these kids have the best advantage possible,” Sabia said. “Because honestly, I feel like if this had happened in other areas of the county we wouldn’t be dealing with these issues.”

School officials apologized profusely and told parents if they wanted weekly updates even if they didn’t have new information that is what they would do to make them “feel better.”

Click here to read the entire Fire Investigation Report from Tampa Fire Rescue

Students ABC Action News Reporter Michael Paluska spoke to said adjusting to a bigger school with more students has been tough.

“It’s kind of bad because people keep being mean to me but it’s also kind of good because my mommy taught me it doesn’t matter what people think it matters who you are and what you think of yourself,” Spirit Smith a 3rd grader said. “We had a lot of memories and fun times at that school.  I want them to rebuild it the same way so it could be like nothing ever happened.”