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New lease paints an uncertain future for Pizzo K-8 and Hillsborough schools' relationship with USF

The front of a school building, with a sign that reads "Welcome to Pizzo."
Sky Lebron
Anthony Pizzo K-8 School operates on leased land on the University of South Florida Tampa campus, but a new agreement could push the school out.

For decades, Pizzo K-8 operated on the University of South Florida Tampa campus. But the terms of a new lease agreement between the district and university could push the school to move.

The future of Anthony Pizzo K-8 School, which sits on the University of South Florida Tampa campus, is uncertain as the Hillsborough County School District weighs the terms of a new lease agreement that calls for a near tenfold rent increase.

The lab school is home to more than 900 students and, for years, trained USF College of Education majors to be future teachers.

But the partnership between the district and university might be coming to a close, thanks to the end of the teacher professional development program and an untenable rent hike.

Starting with the new fiscal year, rent for the land is increasing from $60,000 a year to $550,000 a year, with a 3% annual increase in subsequent years.

The district will also have to pay a one-time parking fee of $1,035,000 for 69 parking spaces, as well as an annual $25,000 security fee to University Police.

"They [USF] are walking away from a partnership with us, and not only walking away, but basically sticking it to us," said board member Patti Rendon.

Home of the pizzo bulls marked on fence
Sky Lebron
Pizzo K-8 school, located on the USF Tampa campus, is looking at an uncertain future with a tenfold rent hike.

At Tuesday's meeting, the school board approved the new ten-year lease, which is set to expire June 30, 2034.

But the contract allows either party to terminate the lease early with two years' notice — though, in either case, the school district would be responsible for the costs to demolish the building.

"This board is going to have to approve this [agreement] because we don't have a choice," said Rendon, "because we are not going to displace students two months before school starts."

Deputy Superintendent Chris Farkas, who was present during lease negotiations, said the district was expecting some increase to the cost since the school was established almost 30 years ago, but was surprised by the final number.

In an email statement, USF officials said that the new rent is more in line with current market rates and "more closely aligned with the rates for the university’s other on-campus sublease agreements."

But Farkas argued that, unlike fast food restaurants and other private entities on USF's campus, the school district doesn't affect revenue.

"We were treated as a public entity 30 years ago, and this time, we were treated as a private entity based on the feedback from USF," explained Farkas. "We're paying what market value would be for that land on USF campus, and that's a huge challenge for a government entity to reach that."

The original lease, which ended in 2023, was extended an extra year to allow both parties to come to the current agreement.

"We did not realize it was going to be an adversarial conversation or that it would go on as long as it did," said Farkas.

Some board members speculated that the university has other plans for the land.

University spokesperson Althea Johnson said the school has not determined next steps for when the lease expires in 2034.

USF also pointed out that the 30-year-old building has "significant deferred maintenance requirements such as a new roof and HVAC upgrades."

"As per the terms of the original sublease agreement, these repairs are the responsibility of the school district.  Rather than undertaking major maintenance requirements, the school board elected to demolish the building at the end of the term," wrote Johnson.

Recent school closures due to low enrollment have rocked Hillsborough families. But Farkas said Pizzo's enrollment has remained steady over the years.

The school serves a predominantly Black and Hispanic student population, according to state enrollment data. All students receive free or reduced lunch as well, according to Farkas.

"So it's actually some of our most underserved kids that we're having to displace because of that stance," said Farkas.

Future plans for the school — whether its relocating the students to another building or redrawing school zones — will have to be determined by the board and superintendent.

"There's a lot of different options ... do we want to stay there for 10 years and try to negotiate with it? Or is it something where we need to say, 'Hey, this is too expensive, this is not a good use of taxpayer dollars,'" said Farkas.

Board member Henry "Shake" Washington likened the deal to a family breaking up.

"It's like being married for 30 years and getting a divorce. I'm like the kids, this is bad," said Washington, "I'm really saddened."

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.