DADE CITY — After listening to impassioned pleas from students, alumni and members of the community, Pasco County schools superintendent Kurt Browning nixed his controversial proposal Tuesday to close the Moore Mickens Education Center.
His announcement came on the heels of a packed town hall meeting Monday night where people pleaded with Browning to save the school, which serves teen moms, special-needs students, those learning English and people studying for the GED.
"I have heard the heartfelt pleas from Moore Mickens students, graduates, staff and supporters, and I cannot in good conscience move forward with the recommendation to close the school at this time," Browning said in a statement released Tuesday.
His reversal was welcome news to those who lobbied for the school.
"To me that's the heartbeat of the community there. To lose it would be like a death," said Hazel Wells, 65, who graduated from the school when it served as Pasco's first permanent black campus. "I'm grateful to God that (Browning) changed his mind and that things will remain as they are."
The school, which originally opened in the 1930s, became an education center in 1987 providing a range of alternative programs. Last month district officials proposed closing the campus and moving those programs to other schools, such as Pasco High School. They said that would give students access to additional classes and extracurricular activities while reducing the maintenance costs at Moore Mickens.
Equally important, officials said, were concerns that CSX intends to increase the number of trains running on the track just outside the Moore Mickens campus to as many as 30 a day.
But the campus has a long history of helping disadvantaged students. Browning's proposal to close it sparked heavy opposition.
Supporters described Moore Mickens as a haven for students who struggled at larger campuses that didn't offer as much personal support.
"This is a very unique place," said Chris Barber, who works to help special-needs students get jobs. The campus has several enterprises providing job training skills to special-needs students, including a handmade holiday greeting card operation and the Mickens Pickins gardening center.
At the town hall Monday night, Barber described two "outcast" students who went on to graduate and get jobs at a car dealer and in the school district. "These students fall through the cracks," he said.
Students in the Cyesis program, which is for pregnant teens and young parents, said the close-knit campus gives them the support they need to get their diploma. One girl described how her teacher gave her formula when she ran out.
One after another, the students described how they traded failure at other schools for success at Moore Mickens.
"Moore Mickens serves a very unique set of students," Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, told the Times on Tuesday. "It would be very hard to take that and try to replicate that somewhere else or divide it among already existing facilities."
Webb said she was "very pleased" with Browning's decision to keep Moore Mickens open.
"I think his decision shows a willingness to take a risk, put out a proposal and truly listen to the feedback, and make a decision based on that feedback, which is something he had pledged to do in his candidacy," Webb said.
"I think it's a positive sign that the superintendent was not only willing to listen, but to take action on what he heard," she added.
The school district is still looking at ways to deal with an anticipated $23 million shortfall next year.
Last week Browning announced a plan to eliminate all school media specialist and literacy coach positions next school year. He also plans to cut 20 special education staffing compliance jobs and ESOL resource teacher jobs, several adult education administrative and clerical positions, and jobs deemed in excess after the temporary closure of Shady Hills and Quail Hollow elementary schools. All told, those cuts would save about $5.6 million.
Closing the Moore Mickens campus might have saved another $1 million, the district said. Keeping it open will mean the superintendent and School Board will have to find savings elsewhere.
Browning's statement noted that district officials are trying to provide some type of raise to employees, who have not seen a pay increase in six years.
Browning still plans to move one program from Moore Mickens: The Early Head Start program will move to Pasco Elementary School beginning in the 2013-14 school year.
"The pre-K program belongs at an elementary school with students of that same age group," Browning said.