Pasco School Board members weigh pros, cons of closing Lacoochee Elementary

A vote is scheduled for Tuesday evening.
Lacoochee Elementary School serves a mostly poor and minority community in northeast Pasco County. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Lacoochee Elementary School serves a mostly poor and minority community in northeast Pasco County. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Published Dec. 12, 2018|Updated Dec. 12, 2018

Citing inefficiencies that accompany declining enrollment, Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning is asking his School Board to close Lacoochee Elementary in a remote high poverty corner of the county.

As the Dec. 18 vote approaches, a majority of the five board members have expressed reservations with the proposal, which includes reassigning children to Cox Elementary about seven miles to the south.

"I just want to know what is going to be best for our kids and how they will best be served," said board chairwoman Alison Crumbley, who spent Tuesday touring the east Pasco community and visiting with parents, teachers and other residents. "It's a real tough one, without a doubt."

She and other board members said they are researching bus routes, school choice data, enrollment trends and other factors in the run up to the pending decision. They're also taking into account the impact that such a move would have on the student body, which is 97.5 percent low-income and 72 percent minority, and the area, which has little else as an anchor.

And they're listening to the people who would be most affected.

Related coverage: Lacoochee Elementary parents, staff hope to hold off proposed school closing 

"I definitely see how that is the center of the community," said board member Megan Harding, who worked in a Title I school before her election, after her visit to the area. "Maybe there could be another solution to the problem."

Browning, whose wife works as Lacoochee's nurse, said he has labored to find alternatives. Shutting down the school is not something he wants to do.

But he argues that, from his team's perspective, no better option exists.

Lacoochee's average daily attendance, including prekindergarten, has declined from 635 in 2006-07 to its current 313, a drop of more than 50 percent in just over a decade. It shows no sign of rebounding.

Close to half of the children still living in the school's zone use choice to attend other campuses, Browning added, and attracting staff to Lacoochee remains a difficult task that even $15,000 bonuses did not solve.

He doesn't want to have a charter school at the site, because it would wrest control from the district as it aims to improve educational outcomes for the children. And he doesn't think a magnet would attract enough students to make it viable.

Moving the students and staff to Cox, and adding more support staff to provide services for the needing population, looks to be the best bet, Browning suggested. He noted the plan also includes expansion of an accelerated system, such as the Cambridge Programme, into the larger Cox.

"I know it's a big shift," he said. "But the facts are out there. … My concern is with students and how we can better serve the students."

Related coverage: Pasco school district officials offer more details on proposal to close Lacoochee Elementary 

The passionate concerns from Lacoochee parents and teachers, paired with the earnest explanations from district administrators, have board members struggling to reach their own conclusions. They're paying especially close attention after having faced blistering criticism from some fronts for the board's handling of other rezonings and the closure of Ridgewood High in the past two years.

"I'm thinking about it all the time," vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin said. "I am torn. I haven't made up my mind, but I have a whole bunch of notes and questions."

She's particularly focused on Lacoochee's student numbers, saying she's received contradictory details from different sources. A teacher herself, Beaudoin added that she wants to hear more from the people who work most closely with the children.

"Their voices are important," she said.

Harding agreed. She noted how the faculty and other employees — many of whom joined Lacoochee when Browning restaffed the struggling school in  2013 —  bring opportunities to the students they might never otherwise have.

The school has improved from its 2015 F grade to just shy of a B from the state, she added. She wondered whether making one larger Title I school that combines the county's two campuses with the highest levels of impoverished children is the best answer to Lacoochee's declining enrollment.

"Those children have been taken from, a lot," Harding said, adding she continues to collect information before taking a side.

That notion resonated with Crumbley, as well. She said she worried that what seems a short drive to more well-off people could become a significant problem for Lacoochee families, who might not be able to participate if their children are reassigned to Cox.

(The district has said it will provide school bus rides for all the children.)

As she drove through the east Pasco area, she said, it became clear that the board's decision can have far reaching implications. So getting it right matters, Crumbley said.

In the end, Beaudoin suggested, the outcome could depend on how the district can balance the school's importance to the community with the size of that school. Small can be good, she said, but too small can be problematic for both teachers and students.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong wouldn't say how she was leaning. But she said she felt ready to make a vote when the time comes, having listened to various interested parties and read through available data.

"It's going to be a tough decision," Armstrong said. "I will try to make the best decisions for the students now and in the future."

The board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 18 at the district headquarters in Land O'Lakes. If the board approves the closure, the administration has not said what it would do with the buildings after they're vacated in the spring.