LAND O'LAKES — It's not as if pieces of Sanders Elementary are falling down on children's heads. Or that Pasco High resembles a ramshackle shed. Or that learning can't take place at Pasco Middle.
They're just old.
And over the past decade, as the Pasco school district has focused on building new schools, these aging campuses have grown outdated and worn, despite the best efforts by custodial and maintenance teams to keep them up.
They have drafty windows, inefficient lighting systems, poor traffic flows and limited parking. They flood, or leak, or both. Storage space and meeting rooms don't really exist. Classrooms lack many amenities, including modern technology, that newer schools take for granted.
When things break, "it's not that we don't fix them," Sanders principal Jill Middleton says. "It's that we fix them repeatedly. And often."
And so the time has come for the Pasco district to pay some attention to its oldest schools. First on the list are Sanders, Pasco Middle and Pasco High, the three schools that came up as needing the most work in an evaluation of the district's 10 schools that are 40 years of age or older.
"God bless 'em for doing that," said Dale Maggard, immediate past chairman of Pasco High's school advisory committee. "We've never been the type that have just constantly griped and complained about everything. But that being said, we also understand that our facility was in great need, frankly, in today's world, of basic necessities."
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School district officials readily admit that their focus was on providing seats for a steadily growing number of children.
Already crowded, the schools barely could hold more students. Yet they kept coming as the county's housing developments boomed. At the peak, the district was welcoming more than 3,000 new students in a year.
New schools had to come first.
"With the tremendous growth that Pasco has experienced over the past 10 years, there wasn't enough money to do both," said John Petrashek, the district's director of new construction. "There was no money left for existing facilities."
From 1998 through 2008, the district built 26 new schools.
Some of them were just a short drive away from the older ones, which got little attention. Parents noticed.
"If you had to choose between two physical plants that were just 7 miles apart, and the curriculum was the same and the teachers were the same, wouldn't you want to go to the more modern school?" asked Natalie Brock, who chairs Pasco Middle's advisory committee and started its PTO. "We're facing that. A lot of parents pick Centennial or Weightman."
Centennial Middle opened in 2001 and Weightman in 1991. Pasco Middle was first built in 1949.
Brock thought about sending her son Carson to private school, but found the teachers and the campus welcoming, whatever the buildings' condition.
"We thought, this is a no-brainer. We can deal with an old school," Brock recalled.
Only after her son told her that he dropped a yardstick from his second-floor classroom to the room below — through a hole in the floor — did she start to rally for improvements.
"You don't begrudge anybody at a new school," she said. "But gosh, come on. There doesn't seem to be any balance."
Only recently did the district get any money to act, though. The Penny for Pasco, adopted by voters in 2004, represented the first major influx of revenue Pasco had for major overhauls of the older schools.
"Everything is driven by the budget," assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said. "Our commitment is there."
Folks at Sanders Elementary are glad for it.
Sanders was originally built for 100 students in 1948. The total cost: $57,000.
The school now has about 900 students, housed in portables and the several buildings the district has added in what some officials call a "hodge-podge" fashion. They don't all look the same or have the same features. The layout is such that the sidewalks seem more like a maze.
"No one can come to the school and figure out where they're going," principal Middleton said. "Even with a map."
The setup also does not serve the district's team-teaching, multi-age learning philosophy well. Just one building has classrooms in the shared "pod" setting that other Pasco schools use. And the buildings are spread out, causing potential security concerns at the edges of campus that aren't easily seen.
"We need more pods with bathrooms," PTA president Margarida Wainraich said. "It's funny how the new schools take bathrooms in close proximity for granted."
The school can't even have many family events, because it doesn't have a space big enough to hold everyone who would attend, Wainraich said.
"It's harder for us to do what others do so easily, which is why it's time for us to renovate," Middleton said.
The school is slated to have about half its buildings torn down and replaced, starting perhaps as early as 2009.
Looking to the future
Problems are similar at Pasco High and Pasco Middle.
Many of the buildings don't meet the needs of people with disabilities. Classrooms don't have central air conditioning. Traffic patterns don't work.
The district hired engineer Rich Bekesh of Holiday to create master plans for both schools. That way, as people talk about what they think the schools need, they'll focus on the big picture and set priorities rather than just jumping in for another hodge-podge set of projects.
Once work begins, the schools won't waste time or money doing something that will have to be redone to make way for the next phase.
Pasco Middle's plan is ready for implementation.
Bekesh said the top priority there is a 16-classroom addition. The concept also calls for renovations to the administration building and classroom building No. 1, as well as added sidewalks, a central courtyard and more parking.
The first phase of construction could begin by mid 2009.
At Pasco High, the plan remains in the works. Bekesh is still gathering public advice and putting cost estimates to the different pieces.
Those pieces include renovating the administration building and creating a new front entrance with a real community "presence," including better traffic pattern.
Future pieces include fixing up the commons area where students hang out. Now, it has sidewalks where the students don't walk and dirt where they've worn out the sod. The benches are vintage 1960s pressure-treated wood. The railing comes in about seven different styles.
"They just love to come to this area here," principal Pat Reedy said, as he walked through the commons, which he hopes will become a focal point for the school. "We do all kinds of stuff out here. I wish we could do it (renovate) tomorrow."
The plan also includes a 16-classroom addition, athletic facility improvements and other rehabilitation. Already, the district has upgraded the school's cafeteria and added two elevators.
"I really believe the Pasco County school district needs to do this," Bekesh said. "You see all these new schools and they're really beautiful. Yet you've got places like this and they're almost forgotten. There's got to be some balance."
Good as they can be
School Board member Allen Altman, who represents most of eastern Pasco County, stressed that the conditions are not an excuse for not trying as hard as educators in other schools.
"Learning can take place under an oak tree," Altman said. "No one has used it as an excuse."
Rather, the district is just trying to bring some modernity to the schools that have the most needs.
Reedy acknowledged that, even with the best plans, the older schools never will look like the new ones or have all the same bells and whistles. But at the same time, he continued, the district does need to make things better.
"The kids deserve it," he said. "The community deserves it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.