LAND O' LAKES — Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning wants to be perfectly clear: His plan to shutter Lacoochee Elementary School is not about money.
"We are not doing this as a cost-saving effort," Browning told the School Board on Tuesday.
Rather, he said, his proposal to close Lacoochee — as well as Hudson and Mittye P. Locke elementary schools in west Pasco — is about improving educational opportunities for the children attending those campuses.
The effort will allow the district to maximize the financial resources and the space it has available, Browning suggested. That, in turn, will let the education professionals better collaborate and provide stronger academic leadership for the children, most of whom live in poverty.
"If we don't change the way we think about delivering education to the kids we serve, we are doing them a huge disservice," Browning said. "We have got to make some tough decisions."
He and his staff detailed some of the plans they have for Lacoochee, which would be combined into Cox Elementary about seven miles south in Dade City, if the board approves.
Principal Latoya Jordan would lead the effort, including the transition. Cox principal Claudia Steinacker has been transferred to Oakstead Elementary.
Cox would take all Lacoochee students and staff, and then add even more services, said assistant superintendent Monica Ilse, who is organizing the initiative. Those would include a full-time psychologist, social worker and nurse, two guidance counselors and enough instructional aides so there will be one to every two teachers.
"They would like more hands in the classrooms," Ilse said, speaking of teachers.
For at least one year, the combined school would have an extra assistant principal and learning design coach.
Acknowledging several concerns raised about transportation for Lacoochee residents to get to Dade City, Browning said the district would ensure school bus rides for all children and would work with the community to determine what other services it might provide to help. Board member Colleen Beaudoin was particularly keen on resolving any transportation issues.
"We need to really work with that community to make sure we are communicating and collaborating with them," Beaudoin said.
But parents and community members who attended the board meeting didn't have much interest in making the transition to Cox. They urged the board to reject Browning's recommendation, and instead find ways to bolster Lacoochee.
Parent-Teacher-Child Organization president Savanna Harris asked the board to consider rezoning children into Lacoochee. That could solve crowding problems in Wesley Chapel area schools, Harris suggested, while also keeping open a "cherished community school" that serves some of Pasco's most vulnerable students.
Phyllis Proctor, a retired Lacoochee teacher of 30 years, listed the many ways the school serves as a center for the shrinking community and encouraged the board to look for a compromise.
Current teacher Daniel Vazquez continued that thread, noting the school reaches well beyond its stated mission to help residents in more ways than reading and writing. The people of Lacoochee have so many things ripped away, Vazquez said, yet they roll with the punches and survive.
Lacoochee's children will succeed, he said, but in spite of the district plan, not because of it. He asked officials to not take more away from them.
"We have a jewel in Lacoochee, and that is Lacoochee Elementary," said parent Ebony Pickett. "We stand before you because Lacoochee Elementary, it works."
They planned to continue their protest at a Thursday information session at the school, and then through to the board's scheduled vote on Dec. 18.
Retiring School Board member Steve Luikart, attending his final meeting, stood with the families. In his parting message, he said one of his two great disappointments during his tenure has been closing schools.
He referred to Ridgewood High, which the board converted into a technical high school this year, and to the recommendations now before the panel.
"Schools are cornerstones of those neighborhoods and also provide safe zones," Luikart said.
Shutting them stems from a lack of desire to fix them, a lack of knowledge if how to do so, or the lack of staff capable of making the needed improvements, he said. "You cannot put dollar signs on communities or students."
If the board approves the plan, the district would begin the transition in January.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.