LAND O'LAKES — Save our school.
That message resounded through the Pasco County School Board chambers Tuesday morning, as a dozen east Pasco residents spoke passionately about the need to keep Moore Mickens Education Center open.
Superintendent Kurt Browning has proposed moving various programs — including those for special needs students, struggling high-schoolers and the Cyesis program for pregnant teens and young parents — to other east Pasco schools. The Moore Mickens campus, which served as the county's first permanent school for black students before housing various alternative programs, has a long history of helping disadvantaged students. Browning's proposal to close it sparked heavy opposition.
People attending the board meeting Tuesday represented the black, Hispanic, migrant, special needs and school communities, as well as Dade City leadership. Many more people indicated they wanted to be there, but could not because the board met while school was in session.
Those who spoke shared a common theme: Moore Mickens has a special place in their community.
"Moore Mickens has done a world of good for young people that are trying to turn their lives around. It made a lot of sense to have the school there," said civic activist Warren "Snapper" Godbolt, who graduated from the school in the 1960s when it was a black campus. "I see it as a slap in the face to see Moore Mickens closed or turned into something else. It's a plus for the community."
Matthew Kurtz told the board that the school helped him overcome his learning disability to gain an education. Francisco Contreras spoke of how the teachers at Moore Mickens helped him at age 14 put his checkered past behind him, jump start his sixth-grade education and ultimately find his way to a successful job in air conditioning.
"They were the only people that gave me a chance and believed in me," Contreras said. "They changed my life."
In addition to providing educational opportunity, speakers said, Moore Mickens represented hard-fought history through segregation and racial tensions.
They were not keen to see the memory fade.
"We believe it is based on race," Maudrienne Hanner, a Moore Mickens High graduate, told the board about the proposal to shut the campus down. "We have steadily seen our heritage just being ripped apart, torn down, destroyed. … We need to keep Moore Mickens."
United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb, who taught at Moore Mickens Education Center and had a son attend there, urged the board to tread lightly with its next steps with the school.
"I am all for financial savings," she said, giving a nod to one of the reasons Browning has given for leaving the campus. "But I also know we have to weigh financial costs and savings against political issues, trust and goodwill. Moore Mickens is more than a cost center. It is more than a school. …
"It is a symbol of struggle and success. And our School Board needs to maintain that as best it can."
After hearing the concerns, Browning spoke in defense of his idea.
First, he stressed, the rumors that the district wants to raze Moore Mickens are false: "We are not going to bulldoze that facility."
In fact, he said, the district wants to work with community leaders to find the next best use for the site, such as a museum or a community center.
He also said the district has no intention of dumping academic programs currently offered at Moore Mickens. It simply is looking into relocating them to other sites where students have more education options.
Students in the teen parent program have not attended honors or other courses at Pasco High in three years, though they are available and the students are qualified, assistant superintendent Ray Gadd noted. "My question is, why?"
By moving programs, he suggested, the students will have better access to such courses, as well as programs such as band.
Browning said all ideas remain up for discussion. He plans to make a public presentation to the community at 7 p.m. Monday at the Moore Mickens cafeteria.
He's got a lot of convincing to do. The City Commission on Monday passed a resolution urging the district to maintain Moore Mickens.
The public on Tuesday made its passion for the place clear.
"We want to ask you to please fix Moore Mickens," migrant activist Margarita Romo told the board, referring to concerns that the campus requires too much maintenance work. "Do not displace the people that are in it. Because there is a reason for them to be there."
Board members have asked for more information. A couple have requested campus visits.
They have not received any formal recommendations for action.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.