Lawsuit delays efforts to buy Winn-Dixie building, relocate Lexington's STEAM Academy

jwarren@herald-leader.comApril 30, 2014 

The old Johnson Elementary School in Lexington housed STEAM Academy for its first year. It is hoping to move in the fall to a permanent home, but a lawsuit is delaying those plans.

PHOTO BY CHARLES BERTRAM | STAFF — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

For several months, the Fayette County Board of Education has been pressing a lawsuit intended to clear the way for its purchase of a permanent home for Lexington's STEAM Academy.

The board's suit, which was filed in Fayette Circuit Court, seeks a declaratory judgment favoring the school system's plan to buy a former Winn-Dixie supermarket in the shopping plaza at South Broadway and Virginia Avenue. The school district wants to move STEAM there this fall.

But an attorney who represents some neighboring property owners named in the lawsuit says his clients contend that putting a school in the shopping plaza would be prohibited under a long-running deed restriction.

With the Winn-Dixie purchase stalled pending the outcome of the lawsuit, Fayette Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton said it's "more than likely" that STEAM will have to remain in temporary quarters at the former Johnson Elementary School for 2014-15.

The lawsuit was filed in November. Sharon Mofield-Boswell, Parent Teacher Student Association president at the STEAM Academy, said members were informed of it in March.

"We are awaiting a decision and are hopeful it will be good news to share very soon," she said.

Meanwhile, Mofield-Boswell said, the PTSA is seeking community partners interested in investing in STEAM and the new school's innovative education model.

Operated in a partnership between the Fayette Schools and the University of Kentucky, the academy opened last fall at the old Johnson school, proclaiming itself "Kentucky's most innovative school."

Teaching is focused on a series of "design challenges," in which students learn by tackling solutions to real-world problems. The program also allows high schoolers, starting in their freshman year, to earn credits at UK.

The concept is patterned after Metro High School in Columbus, Ohio, which works with Ohio State University.

"The whole idea behind STEAM is that it molds to the needs of the individual students it serves, while emphasizing science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics," Mofield-Boswell said. "It is a work in progress, as it should be."

Shelton acknowledges, however, that the new academy is dealing with "some growing pains."

"That's expected when you have a startup program like this that is so radically different from what a normal school looks like," he said.

Indeed, Fayette Schools officials said last fall that they would work out some details of the program even as STEAM went through its first year of classes.

"We're still working with UK on how things will work when more STEAM kids start taking classes on campus," Shelton said. "And we still have to talk about the cost of tuition. We're working through those issues and we're confident we can do that through our partnership with UK."

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the university continues "to make positive and substantive progress on this important initiative with the Fayette County Public School System."

"It is natural when putting together an initiative like this that there will be questions and concerns. We believe those will be addressed in the coming months," Blanton said.

Blanton referred questions about a new building for STEAM to Fayette Schools district officials.

A key sticking point has been finding a permanent home for the academy. The school board voted last summer to buy the old Winn-Dixie building, but the purchase hasn't been completed.

Shelton said last fall that the school system was working with neighboring property owners to deal with the deed restrictions.

Shortly afterward, the school board sued several people and companies that own nearby property, seeking clarification of deed restrictions. Defendants include Creekside South LLC, Boom Inc, Ben H. Levy, Velda Joe Levy, Hossein Delshad, and Carol and Virginia White.

Lexington attorney Dick Murphy, who represents Ben Levy and two associations, said his clients contend that deed restrictions preclude a school from operating in the former grocery store.

"Generally, it's our position that there is an issue as to whether a school use is allowed under the deed restrictions for the shopping center, since it was originally planned as a shopping center," Murphy said.

Shelton said the school board contends that it shouldn't be bound by the deed restrictions because they were specific to the Winn-Dixie store.

Shelton said the Winn-Dixie building remains the "preferred site" for the STEAM Academy, although school district officials are considering as many as three alternative sites. Those include a spot on the UK campus and two others near campus, he said.

He declined to name those sites.

Shelton emphasized, however, that the school system sees the three alternatives as "temporary," not permanent sites. Winn-Dixie is the best location, he said.

Unless site-selection problems are resolved soon, STEAM probably will have to stay at Johnson School for another year, Shelton said.

"We're planning for the fact that we might have to spend one more year at Johnson," he said. "But there is ample room and space there for us to do that."

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255. Twitter: @heraldleader.

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