Oakstead Elementary recently lost eight teachers to layoffs and is 300 students over capacity, even though the school is less than a decade old. Kelly Keene's fifth-grade class meets in a portable building and is three students over the class size cap of 22.
All of which made Oakstead the perfect backdrop for Vice President Joe Biden's speech Tuesday promoting the American Jobs Act, a bill that includes funding to keep teachers and repair or expand schools.
"This is an emergency," Biden said in defense of the $447 billion bill, which would cut payroll taxes, extend unemployment benefits, spend money on public works projects, and help states and local governments keep teachers, police officers and firefighters on the job. It would also include tax increases on the wealthiest Americans and corporations.
Biden said keeping teachers in the classroom is more important than giving oil companies and corporations "tax breaks they don't need."
"Can we afford it? We can absolutely afford it," he said.
Before speaking to invited guests in the school media center, Biden spent nearly 40 minutes in Keene's classroom, taking questions about his job, his life, his favorite sports.
He also kept his focus on jobs, even with the children.
Biden told the fifth-graders that everybody wants to work, but jobs are difficult to come by "because of what we call a recession, because things got really bad before we got into office."
"All across America we're losing all sorts of teachers," Biden added. "Almost 300,000 teachers have lost their jobs. Mrs. Keene used to have a class with 19 kids in it. Now there's 25. … The more kids there are, the harder it is to answer the questions."
He later told the grownups that the state Constitution limits fifth-grade classes to 22 students, "so they are in violation of the state law."
President Barack Obama's American Jobs Act proposes $25 billion to modernize 35,000 public schools and $30 billion to save close to 400,000 teaching jobs. While Biden pushed the bill in Pasco, Obama was at a community college in Mesquite, Texas, urging Congress to pass the bill.
The appearance by Biden — the highest ranking dignitary to visit a Pasco school — drew a crush of media as well as state and local officials, parents and laid-off teachers, some of whom were skeptical about the Jobs Act.
"If the intent is to raise taxes on those making $250,000 a year, what incentives are there for the job creators to create jobs here instead of sending them to China?" asked Christian Rivas, who taught special education at Anclote High School before losing his job this year.
Political power couple Alex Sink and Bill McBride, who both made Democratic bids for governor, were on hand to voice support for the bill. And the Pasco School Board wrapped up its morning meeting in time to greet Biden at Oakstead.
Board members gushed about how the visit put Pasco schools in the national spotlight. But they expressed concern that the Jobs Act could ultimately leave locals holding the bag when the federal funding runs out.
"We'll have to study this," said board member Steve Luikart. "But we appreciate their effort."
The visit drew a critical response from U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Brooksville, whose district includes Oakstead Elementary.
"The bottom line is that this isn't about supporting long-term, sustainable job creation in this country, it's about trying to create a narrative that some people don't care about teachers and first responders," said Nugent, a former first responder who is married to a teacher.
But David Lambert, an area manager for the Pasco schools transportation department, accused conservative politicians of trying to dismantle the public school system.
"If everybody could afford a private school and could pick what they wanted, it would be great, but we all know that's a fantasy," said Lambert, 57, a West Virginia native whose father worked in the coal mines and who grew up using an outhouse. A strong public school system, he said, "gives everyone a chance."