Plans for a massive renovation of Shady Hills Elementary are moving full speed ahead, even as a growing group of parents and neighbors are protesting the project.
It's not that they don't want to see the 38-year-old building and its crumbling infrastructure improved. They just don't want their kids to be displaced from campus to attend nearby Crews Lake Middle School for two years while the work gets done.
"It's a beautiful building," Shady Hills Elementary PTO president Rose Rogers said of Crews Lake. "It's just not safe for our children to go there."
She raised concerns about the young children moving through the three-story school with older students who begin dabbling in activities such as profanity, smoking and skipping class that elementary kids don't generally do. Crews Lake, Rogers said, is not the best place to test out the K-8 education model in Pasco County.
Several parents launched a petition against the move, collecting what they estimated to be about 600 signatures. A handful of them picket outside both schools each day, and a group came to the Pasco School Board meeting on Tuesday to voice their worries.
Jessie Barnett, a member of the school's advisory committee, said before the meeting that she'd like to see the district go slow on the renovation. She said a better plan would be to put portables on the Shady Hills campus and let children attend classes there, just as the district did when upgrading Schrader Elementary.
"Let our kids stay in the elementary setting," said Barnett, who has two children at Shady Hills.
District officials said the $8.5 million project, which will be paid for by the renewed Penny for Pasco sales tax, would be too disruptive to allow students to remain in the school building itself during construction. The building will be completely renovated with everything from new bathrooms to upgraded technology.
The district doesn't own enough portables to house the entire student body of about 450, assistant superintendent Ray Gadd added, and buying more portables at $40,000 to $50,000 each is an undesired expense. If the district waits for portables to become available, Gadd continued, "We could only do one thing at a time."
With nine Kelley-designed schools slated for major upgrades, that could string out the projects for years.
"We want to get hopping on these projects," Gadd said.
The project list already has won approval from the School Board and the general public. The Penny for Pasco won renewal in November with just shy of 70 percent of the vote.
Rogers, who has one child at the school, said if she and others in the Shady Hills area had realized that the project would mean such an upheaval and create stress for their children, they might not have supported it.
She complained that when district leaders explained the concept at a town hall meeting, they didn't ask for input so much as state what would be happening. Yet when residents sought more details about school designs and other parts of the plan, the information was not forthcoming.
"They didn't want to have any other ideas," Rogers added. "This is being pushed very fast."
She, Barnett and others raised questions about children's safety, noting for example that third- and fourth-graders would be placed in portables near the main road and also near loud air conditioning units.
They also disliked the idea of breaking up their school community, which has been tightly knit while performing well academically.
School Board member Steve Luikart, who represents the Shady Hills area, said he hoped that the parents would trust the district to do the project right.
He got a few calls from people worried that the school would never reopen. That's not the case, he said, because the construction bids are already out.
"We're going to rebuild Shady Hills," he said.
Gadd added that if the district were to pursue K-8 education for the long term, it would build schools designed to house that model and not shoe-horn it into Crews Lake.
Luikart also heard from parents worried about having elementary children mingling with middle schoolers in the hallways, cafeteria and buses. He shared their angst until he got more details.
"It was explained to me that they are going to be separated," Luikart said, noting that the students will have different bell schedules and occupy different parts of the Crews Lake campus. "I think the district has a grip on those concerns."
Gadd said that Crews Lake also has the very few problems with student discipline and referrals, making it a safe and well managed campus. If parents remain dissatisfied, he added, the district has extended its school choice deadlines for families to seek other places to attend.
"It's in the best interest of the kids," Luikart said of the Shady Hills renovation. "In the long run, that new school is hopefully going to be the highlight of that community up there."
The district expects to have an approved construction bid for Shady Hills Elementary by mid June. It has posted updated information about the project at www.pasco.k12.fl.us/transformation/shes/.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.