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Tampa school fire ‘not suspicious,’ officials say

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

There are no indications of foul play in the fire that burned down the Robert E. Lee Elementary School Tuesday night but the investigation continues, the Tampa fire marshal’s office says.

Tampa Fire Rescue responded to the three-story brick building located at 305 E. Columbus Ave at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday. They reported seeing heavy smoke and and flames emanating from the northwest portion of the roof.

After calling for a second and then a third alarm to bring more personnel and equipment to the scene, officials say the roof began to show signs of collapse and so the incident commander opted to pull the firefighters from inside the building and began fighting the fire from the outside.

Nobody was inside the 111-year-old school at the time of the conflagration, as all Hillsborough County schools have been closed all week because of Hurricane Irma.

Hillsborough County schools officials are now figuring out where to relocate the 329 students and 49 staff members.

According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser website, the value of the building is $2.7 million. Fire officials said the contents of the school are valued at close to $2.3 million, for a total damage estimate of nearly $5 million.

The school had been under the media scope this year with discussion about changing the name of the institution, which was renamed after General Robert E. Lee back in 1943. The Hillsborough County School Board has taken up discussions about renaming the school in light of the renewed focus on Confederate monuments and other relics of the Confederate past.

However, unlike the recent vote by the County Commission to remove a Confederate monument, there was no imminent decision about to be made about the school’s name. That’s because of a school district policy that requires at least 18 months after the board agrees to take up the issue so the community can have time to weigh in on the decision.

The school, located in Tampa Heights, has a student body that is 57 percent African-American.

There is now a GoFundMe page to raise money to pay for school supplies lost in the fire, listed under Lee Elementary Magnet Students.

Hillsborough County School District officials said later on Wednesday that the students and staff from Lee Elementary will be moved to Lockhart Elementary Magnet School, which is less than a mile away from Lee.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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