LARGO — Portable classrooms will soon be a thing of the past at Palm Harbor University High School.
Pinellas County School Board members got their first glance Tuesday at plans for two classroom buildings at Palm Harbor University High. The new buildings will house 39 classrooms and finally retire 42 portable classrooms that have dotted the school’s campus since two or three years after it was built in 1996.
The two-story buildings could be completed in June and under the school district’s $27 million budget, said Peter Hepner, with Holmes, Hepner and Associates Architects.
Located in the drivers education lot, the addition will feature winged, covered walkways to connect the buildings and contemporary pillars, as well as additional parking next to the existing student lot. It will have a courtyard and is the same distance from the center of the campus as the existing portable classrooms.
The buildings will have room for 875 students, with 29 classrooms, four science labs, three part-time special education classrooms, three full-time special education classrooms, and additional student and staff restrooms.
Construction crews have started tearing up the drivers education lot, said Michael Bessette, associate superintendent for operational services. The portable classrooms area eventually will become the drivers education lot and additional parking spaces, Hepner said. In the meantime, drivers ed will be held off campus.
The portables, many of which were purchased for about $300, will be salvaged if possible, Bessette said, but “the goal is not to need them.” Demolition and removal will begin when next school year ends, but it may take longer than the summer break to move them out. Many have sat on the campus for more than 10 years and were used when they were purchased or leased and installed.
“Some may not move, they could just fall apart,” Bessette said.
An island of oak trees near the drivers ed lot creates a visual buffer between the new buildings and neighboring houses. Residents surrounding the campus have been “really supportive,” Hepner said. The buildings take up about half of the existing parking lot, and the area is large enough to hold construction equipment, Hepner said. The only changes students will notice during construction is a slightly different bus route into the school.
“The idea is you won’t even know construction is going on,” Hepner said. “It was a creative idea in the beginning and we’re pulling it off.”
The buildings may get enhancements paid for by Pinellas County’s Emergency Management for use as storm shelters. They meet shelter codes already, and the construction team is testing to see how they could be strengthened to withstand wind speeds exceeding 150 mph — a Category 4 hurricane.
“We need extra shelter space in Pinellas County,” Bessette said. “Shelters are lifeboats, they’re not cruise ships. It’s meant to be a last-chance thing, where everyone gets space that’s 3 feet by 5 feet, but during the height of a storm you’re not going to be worried about whether or not you can walk to the cafeteria. You’re going to be hunkered down, trying to save lives.”
The addition will be encompassed by locking gates, and the new building will act as a security wall strengthening the school’s existing fencing. All stairwells are inside the structures so they can be locked down during school hours and at night.
“This project is a long time coming, and one I’m happy to get off my plate,” said Bessette, who is retiring after 40 years with the school district. “It’ll be wonderful.”