Fayette Schools administration answers criticism of Winn-Dixie site for STEAM Academy

The new STEAM Academy might be located in this former Winn-Dixie supermarket off Virginia Avenue, down the street from UK.
The new STEAM Academy might be located in this former Winn-Dixie supermarket off Virginia Avenue, down the street from UK. Herald-Leader

Fayette County Schools officials are responding to anonymous critics' questions, raised online, about the school district's plan to buy a former Winn-Dixie supermarket building from the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System to house the district's new STEAM Academy.

An email sent anonymously to STEAM parents and students on Tuesday blasted the plan as appearing to be "nothing but a conflict-of-interest, bait-and-switch scheme." The email, signed "Anony Mous," suggested that families consider a class-action lawsuit to block the plan.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself the "Fayette County Public Schools Action Committee" has posted a statement on its website suggesting that Fayette School Superintendent Tom Shelton might have a conflict of interest in the purchase plan.

Shelton, who is chairman of the KTRS' board of trustees and also serves on its investment committee, insists the school system is taking extra pains to avoid any conflicts.

The STEAM Academy will open in August at the old Johnson Elementary School building on East Sixth Street. But the district intends to permanently move STEAM to the former Winn-Dixie store on South Broadway next year after the building has been renovated.

Shelton said Wednesday, however, that no purchase deal has been reached and that the district is still negotiating with KTRS.

Shelton said he hopes to submit a purchase contract to the Fayette County Board of Education to consider at its July meeting. The Kentucky Board of Education also would have to approve the site.

The STEAM Academy (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) is a joint effort by the school district and the University of Kentucky, intended to allow students to take college courses while in high school. It ultimately will have 600 students in grades 9-12.

Online criticism of the Winn-Dixie plan began building last weekend. It's unclear who or how many critics there are because they haven't made their names public.

The "Anony Mous" email sent Tuesday apparently went to about 150 families with children who will be attending STEAM this fall. According to the school district, the writer apparently used the Fayette Schools' email distribution list to send the message.

In addition to the suggestion of a lawsuit, Tuesday's email included a link to the Fayette County Public Schools Action Committee's website. The committee says on its website that it is composed of "parent advocates" who have an "adversarial relationship" with the school district and are engaged in "advocacy and oversight."

The former Winn-Dixie building is located in a strip mall near South Broadway and Virginia Avenue. The retirement system acquired it as an investment in the 1990s, but it has been vacant for about five years, KTRS executive secretary Gary Harbin said.

Shelton said in an interview Wednesday that the building will offer several advantages as a STEAM site once it is updated.

"We needed a place right on, or adjacent to, the UK campus, and that shopping center is right across the street from some of UK's programs," he said. "It's right down Virginia Avenue from the College of Pharmacy. It's on the UK shuttle route. The location fits our needs and criteria."

Shelton also said that locating STEAM in an existing building would be cheaper and quicker than building a new building, which would require extensive plans and state approvals.

"If we worked toward constructing a building, completion would be a minimum of three to five years out, no matter where it's located," Shelton said.

Shelton said the school district intends to extensively renovate the 44,000-square-foot supermarket building before STEAM moves in. Academy students will help plan the improvements, school district officials say.

When the Fayette Schools unveiled plans for the STEAM Academy last year, officials said it would be on or near UK's campus so students could more easily attend university classes. UK's new master plan in April showed the STEAM Academy possibly being built on campus behind the Taylor Education Building on Scott Street.

The anonymous email sent to parents Tuesday argued that the Scott Street location would have offered good campus access. In contrast, it described the Winn-Dixie building as a "windowless, one story ex-grocery chain building" surrounded by "asphalt, concrete, a microbrewery and a few fast-food restaurants."

Jack Hayes, the Fayette Schools' student achievement director, emailed a response to parents later Tuesday countering many of the arguments in the anonymous message.

Hayes asserted that using the existing building "saves the taxpayers many, many dollars" that would have been required for a new building.

Meanwhile, Shelton insisted in an interview Wednesday that the proposed academy site behind the UK education building always was intended as a "backup" in case a suitable existing building couldn't be found. Mary John O'Hair, dean of the UK College of Education, agreed.

Shelton said school district officials looked at various potential sites for STEAM before settling on the Winn-Dixie building. At one point, they considered the Lexington Theological Seminary, across Nicholasville Road from UK, before learning that the university was buying it, he said.

Shelton said that although he's on the Kentucky Teacher Retirement Board, he didn't learn that KTRS owned the former supermarket building until the school system began seriously considering it in late winter or early spring.

KTRS owns almost $20 billion worth of investment property, and many individual parcels are unknown to him, he said.

On its website, the Fayette County Public Schools Action Committee points to Shelton's positions on the KTRS board and investment committee, suggesting he "might fairly be considered the decision-maker for both the seller and buyer in this deal."

Harbin, the KTRS executive director, said Wednesday that neither KTRS trustees nor investment committee members vote on buying or selling KTRS investment properties. Those decisions are made by in-house staff or external property managers, he said.

According to Harbin, Bellwether Real Estate Capital manages the Winn-Dixie property for KTRS.

Asked about possible conflicts of interest in negotiations for the building, Harbin said both KTRS and the Fayette Schools are taking steps to avoid problems.

He said KTRS directed its management firm to do an outside appraisal of the building's value "just so there wouldn't be any kind of conflict of interest should the two parties come to an agreement on the property."

Shelton said the Fayette district has done its own separate appraisal on the building, as it routinely does when it buys or sells property.

"When we learned that the teacher retirement system owned it, we wanted to make sure it was an arms-length transaction with no conflicts of interest," he said.

Shelton said both appraisals came up under the $4 million value the Fayette County PVA has placed on the property. He said he couldn't disclose the amounts of the appraisals because negotiations for the property are ongoing.

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