Hillsborough school board votes to rebuild Lee Elementary

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Just more than a year ago, flames ripped through Lee Elementary, leaving hundreds of students, teachers, and staff without a home school.

Tuesday night, the Hillsborough County School Board decided the fate of the century-old building: To rebuild or not to rebuild?

The board voted unanimously to rebuild, a "no-brainer" decision as a few members put it. It was a huge relief for parents, students, and teachers who showed up at the meeting, hoping to get to return home.

September 12, 2017, fire tore through Lee Elementary. The fire marshal deemed it accidental, the result of an electrical surge after power was restored following Hurricane Irma. In addition to the fire damage, the historic building also suffered water damage which the district described as "extensive and irreversible."

For the last year, the displaced students and staff have been working out of temporary modular classrooms on Lockhart Elementary's campus.

As Principal Beverly Smith left school, she was headed straight to the School Board meeting, in hopes of hearing good news. "It would be amazing because we would be in our own space again with our own things, be our own family," Smith said. "That's our motto: 'fami-LEE.'"

At the meeting, every single person spoke in favor of rebuilding.

"The day after the fire happened, my 8-year-old daughter said to my husband and to me, will you help rebuild Lee?" one parent said. 

"This is a great lesson for our kids in persistence and resilience," said parent Barry Shalinsky.

While there was full support to hang onto the building, itself, some opposed keeping the name of a Confederate general, Robert E. Lee Elementary and this isn't the first time it's come up. Discussions about the name began before the fire.

"Being a historian, I love historic buildings," said Fred Hearns. "But not the name Robert E. Lee. School board, we're better than this. I know you're going to come up with a name that can represent what we want our children to learn and what we want them to understand when we say 'one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.' Let's find a suitable name for this school as we rebuild it."

Board member Lynn Gray made a motion to get a progress report on the potential renaming of the school and the motion passed. Shortly after, the board voted unanimously to rebuild.

The room erupted in applause.

"This now gives us a chance to have a brand new school in district 5 and that very, very exciting for our kids to share in the same experience some of our other areas experience," said board member Tamara Shamburger. "Brand new school, new technology, new classrooms." 

According to the insurance companies, if they chose not to rebuild the school, the district would receive only $6.5 million in cash. Subtracting the money already expended on bracing the historic facade, creating space for Lee students on the campus of Lockhart Elementary School with portable classrooms, and other efforts, the district said it would end up with about $4 million.

Since they voted to rebuild, the insurance carrier will cover the entire cost of construction, expected to be well over $10 million.

"I'm really excited," said parent Dr. Sabrina Cardona. "I feel vindicated, validated. When it was lost, it was just this uphill battle. Is it going to happen? Are they going to rebuild? Every day the questions, the questions. To finally be able to sigh relief that that building will return to hopefully meet another 100 years is an awesome feeling."

Moving forward, the idea will be to maintain the historic brick exterior of the school, while modernizing the interior with things like wider hallways, new technology and possibly adding more space to account for continued growth.

An exact timeline on when students and staff will return is not yet set in stone. Deputy Superintendent of Operations Chris Farkas said it usually takes 12 to 18 months from design to construction.