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Blue-Light Specials

Strapped for cash? Looking for a bargain? Try your local Kmart.

That's exactly what school officials in Lee County, Fla., did when they bought the ultimate "blue-light special": two Kmart stores to convert into schools.

"We've got a superintendent who likes to think outside the box," said William G. Moore, the district's executive director of school support.

Finding affordable tracts of land large enough for schools has become challenging, Mr. Moore said. He noted that environmental concerns often make buying undeveloped land unrealistic.

The 65,000-student district, located along the Gulf of Mexico in the southwestern part of the state, bought both discount stores, which were closed after the chain filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, for $9.7 million

District officials plan to renovate the buildings and use them next year as temporary facilities to house students while new schools are completed.

The district currently has five schools under construction, but Mr. Moore said the county would need at least 26 new schools over the next nine years to serve a projected enrollment of 144,000 students.

Renovations of the Kmart stores are expected to cost about $14 million. Mr. Moore said the district would save money, though, because the buildings, with 108,958 and 119,223 square feet, already have basic plumbing and electrical systems.

"We feel like we're getting a good deal here," he said. "The bulk of the cost for the equipment is [already] there."

While it may seem strange to turn a commercial building into a school, it can be economically sound, according to Barbara Worth, the assistant director of public relations for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International.

Commercial buildings are often perfect solutions for urban districts, where land is scarce and building costs are high, because they are large, well-designed, and have generous parking lots that can be converted into playgrounds, she said.

The two stores in Lee County will serve 1,200 high school students once they're completely renovated by August of 2005. However, Mr. Moore said, that is only a temporary measure because they lack the size and acreage needed for high schools. Ultimately, the buildings will be converted into two, 1,000-student elementary schools.

— D. Hurst

Vol. 23, Issue 18, Page 3

Published in Print: January 14, 2004, as Take Note

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