BROOKSVILLE — The sign hangs close to the top of a chain-link fence near a back entrance of the Brookridge mobile home community.
"Please be advised," it reads in red and white capital letters. "The rear gate will no longer be open for school children."
For years, the pedestrian pathway has been the shortest and safest route to school for many elementary, middle and high school students living in the community.
Every day, roughly 50 students use it on their way to and from school.
But starting Oct. 1, the gate at this entrance will be locked. This decision was made in a closed meeting by the Brookridge Community Property Owners Association board of directors.
Brookridge parents are furious. Others, including school officials and the Sheriff's Office, are just a little perplexed.
"Some of the parents in here have lost their jobs. Some have lost their cars," said Mike Dwyer, a resident whose two foster children use the entrance. "That gate is the only way their kids can get to school."
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Brookridge's back gate is just across a two-lane road — Ken Austin Parkway — from Pine Grove Elementary School, West Hernando Middle School and Central High School.
Because it's so close, students living in the community aren't eligible for busing.
When the gate shuts, students who can't get rides will have to travel for miles along busy roads with infrequent sidewalks and frequent construction. The distance from the front entrance of the community to Pine Grove is roughly 3 miles. The trip will be even longer for residents who don't live near the front gate of the community of about 2,500 double-wide mobile homes.
Parents have been protesting off and on since Friday, waving bright signs at the front and back of the community.
"Grandma, I can't walk that far," read one.
"Which child will die?" asked another.
Dwyer says it takes his kids, an 11th-grader and a third-grader, about five minutes to get to school. After Oct. 1, he'll have to make about four, six-mile round trips each day to pick up his kids, he said.
Gail Gill, 59, said she was very worried about the safety of her second-grade grandson.
"It's all about the children," she said while out protesting Monday afternoon. "I never would have moved here if I knew it was this bad."
Anne Valentine, 49, said she moved into the community about five years ago with her autistic son who is now an eighth-grader at West Hernando
"I bought in this community because I was hopeful that my son could be trained to walk to school instead of having to be put on a state-mandated bus for the rest of his life. I've not accomplished that."
"He'll no longer be able to do that," she said. "He'll no longer be able to walk this highway."
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Shutting the gate comes down to two things, said Ray Starr, president of the community's homeowners' board:
Money and security.
"Now you get into an issue of security," Starr said. "There's concern that there would be a breach of security. That makes people nervous."
He said his group's budget, especially given the short notice, doesn't allow for hiring a security guard, which would cost about $12,000.
But he also said there has never been a security guard at the rear gate, and never a serious crime problem.
"I can't think of anything off the top of my head," he said. "I would say, probably not. However, I also have to speak for the people. (And residents are) still are very concerned about the possibility."
This school year, the gate would have been open Monday through Friday from 5:45 to 9:30 a.m. and in the afternoon from 2:05 to 4:50 p.m.
Hernando schools superintendent Bryan Blavatt struggled to understand why the subdivision would want the gate closed, saying that the district is more than willing to help get it open.
"My feeling is: What skin is it off of them to have it open?" he asked. "I think it's pretty obvious that it's really an inconvenience to those kids. But they're making that call."
It appears that they made that call using incorrect information
At least some Brookridge officials thought the Sheriff's Office would be eliminating the crossing guard.
"They made the decision based on the information that they would no longer have a crossing guard," said Sheriff's Office Sgt. Andrew Batchelder, who is in charge of crossing guards.
That was never the case.
Several residents said the decision to close the back gate was made without consulting them and they were given no opportunity to voice their opinions. After the decision was made in the closed meeting, it was officially announced to members of the homeowners group at a meeting on Wednesday. Residents who came out in opposition were not allowed to speak until the end of the meeting.
"We appealed to the board to not lock it," Dwyer said. "They just sat there with stone faces and didn't even respond."
Starr said parents should be talking to the transportation department and the School Board.
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Some of the parents out protesting Monday said the closure of the back gate is part of a much larger and more insidious plot:
To make the subdivision 55 and older.
They say this is an effort to force younger people with young families out.
"There's no truth to that," Starr said. "I think they're grasping at straws there. There's no relevance between the two issues."
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432.