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Pasco School Board votes to keep Lacoochee Elementary open

Community members say they'll work to resolve shrinking enrollment concerns.
Lacoochee Elementary School fifth grader Nathaniel Adams urges the Pasco School Board not to close his school. He later calls the board's decision to keep Lacoochee open "the best thing that ever happened to me." [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Lacoochee Elementary School fifth grader Nathaniel Adams urges the Pasco School Board not to close his school. He later calls the board's decision to keep Lacoochee open "the best thing that ever happened to me." [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Published Dec. 19, 2018|Updated Dec. 19, 2018

LAND O'LAKES — Citing the importance of the school to its community, the Pasco County School Board late Tuesday rejected a plan to close Lacoochee Elementary after classes end in the spring.

"This is a community that has been let down before," chairwoman Alison Crumbley said of the high-poverty, rural northeast Pasco area. "I personally don't want to let Lacoochee down."

Crumbley joined vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin and new board member Megan Harding in turning back superintendent Kurt Browning's proposal to shut down the school, which has seen enrollment shrink, and merge it with Cox Elementary about seven miles to the south in Dade City.

Related coverage: Losing enrollment, Pasco County's Lacoochee Elementary School could be shut down 

Browning suggested the move would give the district an opportunity to provide added social services along with more academic supports to the Lacoochee children. But the board majority said the school provided an anchor for the community and its families, and perhaps the services could be added there instead.

"Lacoochee is a successful school doing successful things in a community that needs it," Harding said. "We do not need to take more from a community that keeps getting things taken from it."

Area residents filled the board room to plead for their school, which improved its state grade from F in 2015 to just points shy of B in 2018. They raised concerns about putting their children on long bus rides, and their own inability to get to Cox to participate in programs, not to mention to pick up an ill student.

They argued their children should not be transferred away in order to get the education they deserve, from people who know them best. They suggested Lacoochee would die without the school.

"We are very passionate because we understand what it takes to educate the children that live in our community," Cassie Coleman of Trilby said. "Yes, the school has had some setbacks, but we have overcome."

Fifth-grader Nathaniel Adams told the board the proposal was "unfair" to Lacoochee students.

"I don't know where they're going to find the room for the portables" at Cox, he said, quickly adding, "I also think I speak for all of us when I say we don't deserve portables."

Resident Wilson Blount got the final word in public comment. He used it to frame the board's task at hand.

"You have a very difficult decision to make," Blount told the board. "You will make your choice and move on. The residents and children of Lacoochee will have to live with your decision the rest of their lives. Please do no harm."

Board members spent hours weighing the pros and cons of the proposal.

After one of the longest board meetings in recent years, which often got testy, the community cheered as it registered that it had won a reprieve.

"I'm super elated," said Ebony Pickett, a mom who reminded the board of the long, checkered history of Lacoochee and its residents, some of whom came after their home in Rosewood was destroyed. "Wealth is not the opposite of poverty, but the opposite of poverty is justice. I think justice was served tonight. They did what is right for our students."

Parent Nina Stewart said she was excited and thankful of the board's action. But she worried the proposal might resurface in a year, as Beaudoin stated could happen.

"If we close it and we're wrong, we can't undo it. If we leave it open and the numbers go down, we can revisit it," Beaudoin noted late in the discussion.

PTSO president Savanna Harris, talking with Stewart about such concerns, said the school's path is now clear. If parents are using choice to leave Lacoochee, she said, the school needs to bring them back.

"We now have an obligation to get out there and build up the school," Harris said.

Browning said he intended to leave principal Latoya Jordan at Lacoochee, and not transfer her to Cox, which has a principal vacancy. That had been a key concern for the school's families and for board members.

He made no commitments about what might happen with staffing if the school closes in the future. And he predicted that could happen, as the Lacoochee region isn't generating new housing or new businesses.

"I promise you we will be here a year from now, as much as it pains me, and nothing will have changed," he said, telling the board it could be giving up an opportunity for Lacoochee children.

Harding pointed out that the staff promised the plan was not designed to save money, and that all savings from Lacoochee would have been poured into services. Beaudoin said she hoped the district would use that money to provide similar assistance at Lacoochee instead.

The board's action Tuesday might give some indication as to its inclinations for the administration's proposed closing of two other schools serving low-income children in west Pasco, Mittye P. Locke and Hudson elementary schools.

That plan is slated for a vote in March.

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