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Wednesday, Jul 18, 2018
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Editorial: Tampa lost more than a building in Lee Elementary fire

The fire that destroyed Lee Elementary School in Tampa on Tuesday is a tragedy — a tragedy for the students and staff, who are already coping with strains from Hurricane Irma; a tragedy for the district, which now must find new spots for those students and teachers; and a tragedy for the community, where Lee stood as a powerful, stately and historic symbol in the inner city. The focus now needs to be on caring for these kids and ensuring everyone in the community knows the facts about the fire.

The fire broke out in the three-story brick building in Tampa Heights on Tuesday evening, after residents said power cut off from Irma was temporarily restored. The school, built in 1906 and later named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, has been in the public spotlight recently as the Hillsborough County School Board has considered whether to change the school's name — part of a larger reconsideration of Confederate memorials and homages across the country.

Tampa Fire Rescue officials said there is no indication of foul play, but given the debate over renaming Lee, the fire marshal's office was called in to investigate the cause of the blaze. The school was completing a renovation of its roof, and classes were out for the week because of Irma. The building and its contents, valued at $5 million, are insured, and expected to be a total loss.

School superintendent Jeff Eakins sent the right message on Wednesday by declaring the school's 330 students and 49 staff members would stay together at a new site. This continuity will be helpful in easing any anxieties the Lee school family will face in moving into new surroundings. Bay area residents have had their lives upended enough in the past week, and it's important to get the students settled and teachers prepared to get on with the task of learning. Area businesses and private donors showed their best by stepping up and offering help.

The issue of renaming Lee needs to be put aside while the recovery is underway. Officials need to quickly determine the cause of the fire and address any lingering public concerns with the investigation. The focus needs to be on the well-being of these children, and the ability of their families to assimilate and become involved in a new school environment. This county, this nation, doesn't build schools like Lee anymore. Its architecture stood as a symbol of the strength of education. Its presence in the community spoke to the role that schools have in society. The city lost more than a building. The job now is to ensure that these children are not lost too.

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