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Hernando considers school closings due to excess space, maintenance costs

BROOKSVILLE — Redistricting. Expensive repairs and remodeling. Even costlier reconstruction. Outright school closures.

Those are among the unsavory options facing the Hernando County School Board when the board meets Tuesday to discuss how best to realign the district's 23 schools, make better use of resources and deal with mounting capital needs.

A number of Hernando's 23 schools are far below capacity, a result of the addition of two new schools in recent years and declining enrollment tied to the economic recession. Pine Grove Elementary School, which has the most excess space, is at only 37 percent of its capacity, with portables. Eastside Elementary is at 53 percent capacity; Spring Hill Elementary is at 65 percent. Fox Chapel and West Hernando middle schools are both in the mid 50s. Central High is at 51 percent.

"You can't have schools operating at (a small fraction of) capacity and still use your money correctly," said Hernando facilities director Roland "Bo" Bavota. "If you were a business and had office space like that, you'd close. We're looking at how we can use our resources."

The district is looking at a number of scenarios that would affect most schools in the district, to varying degrees. Three call for school closures, with one closing Fox Chapel Middle, another Moton Elementary and a third Westside Elementary.

One scenario calls for Westside to be temporarily closed for remodeling, possibly sending all of its students to Pine Grove. Another option reduces the enrollment at Winding Waters K-8 by 100 students, moving those students elsewhere. One of the more complex plans would turn Eastside into a K-8 school and possibly close Parrott Middle School down the road.

But many of the plans present a dilemma: They cost a lot of money. Turning Eastside into a K-8, for example, is just not realistic, superintendent Lori Romano said.

One of the most likely scenarios: closing Westside.

Calling it an unappetizing scenario, Bavota conceded, "I don't think you have much of a choice."

Westside, part of which dates to 1972, is falling into disrepair. District officials say the roof and air-handling system need to be replaced. Parts of the building are not up to code. Some of the equipment is so outdated that maintenance workers can't get replacement parts.

The estimated cost for immediate needs and maintenance at the school is $4.8 million, according to a presentation prepared for the board.

"There isn't any money to do that," said Romano.

A recent evaluation of the school found that it makes more financial sense to tear it down and rebuild than to invest the money to fix it.

"It makes more sense to tear it down and restart," Bavota said.

Bavota said it would cost about $13.5 million to rebuild Westside's main administration and classroom building, remove some of the portables, fix drainage issues and make other modifications.

Romano said her recommendation to the board is to pick the option that has the least impact on students, teachers and families. Changes should be based on the safety and wellbeing of students.

"It's not easy," she said of the board's decision. "You can't have a building that's in total disrepair and going to be harmful."

She later added: "Nobody is going to compromise the safety of kids and staff."

Westside parents are not happy about the prospect of their school being shut down — or the possibility that students could be bused to Pine Grove, about 13 miles away.

Abbey Pallante, a mother of three Westside students, said she worries how long her children would have to ride the bus every day.

"That's too far," she said.

She loves Westside and how close it is to her home and that if any of her kids get hurt or sick she can zip right over and get them.

"I'm really sad," she said

That was the consensus among parents interviewed outside the school on Thursday.

"I'm heartbroken," said Shalynn Elasri, the mother of a first-grader. "I was almost crying."

Erica Agudelo, who has two boys at the school, thinks closing Westside is a bad option and one that will make it even more difficult for parents to get to work on time.

Other parents said it would be a shame to lose the small, tight-knit community that exists at Westside. Some worried about the future of the single-gender program at the school, the only program of its kind in the district.

School Board member Cynthia Moore said that whatever the board opts to do must involve Westside.

"That's the main issue," she said.

She said closing that school for good would be a bad option.

"I don't want to close Westside," she said. "That school means a lot to that neighborhood."

"If we close it down, we'll have to build it up," she said.

School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino, on the other hand, said he would "most definitely vote to close it down."

He said he would rather have 1,000 parents mad at him than find out he was responsible for the death or injury of one.

"It's an unhealthy situation to have children in," he said. "This is all about the health of our students.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

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Hear the issues

The Hernando County School Board will have a workshop at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the School District office at 919 N Broad St., Brooksville, during which it will discuss various redistricting and restructuring scenarios for district schools. The board meets again at 7 p.m. Tuesday for its regular meeting.

Hernando considers school closings due to excess space, maintenance costs 04/11/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2014 6:49pm]
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