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  1. Gradebook

Will the Pasco School Board close two west-side elementary schools?

Board members have some pointed questions about administration's proposal to shutter Hudson and Mittye P. Locke elementary.

As winter break approached, Pasco County School Board members narrowly rejected a proposal to shut down Lacoochee Elementary School, which serves a predominantly low-income rural community in eastern Pasco.

Now concerns similar to those that prompted the majority to turn back the Lacoochee plan are coming to bear on the administration's recommendation to close two west-side elementary schools, Hudson and Mittye P. Locke. Both also have high percentages of low-income children.

Board members signaled their unease with portions of "Project RISE," which would consolidate some west Pasco campuses and increase advanced academic offerings to those that remain, during an early December workshop.

Over break, they've been putting together lists of questions they want answered before considering the concept, which is set for a formal vote in March.

One key factor for board member Megan Harding involves student enrollment figures.

Unlike Lacoochee, which has seen its numbers shrink over time, the west-side schools have remained relatively stable. Hudson sits at 105 percent of its built capacity, according to district reports, and the area could soon see some new housing, Harding noted.

She wondered how shuttering a full school and moving its students to nearby campuses that each exceed 80 percent capacity would help.

Some Lacoochee residents suggested the district was looking to eliminate some unused existing seats to justify adding new ones where the population is growing faster, such as Trinity.

District officials have said that's not the primary objective. But other districts, such as Palm Beach and Leon counties, in the past have seen their new school proposals rejected by the state because they had enough available seats already built.

If that's part of the criteria, board members said, perhaps they need to take a closer look at setting policy and procedure for when they will consider closing a school based on its capacity. Without naming campuses, vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin noted that several might come under scrutiny if that is to become a consideration.

District records show that Gulfside Elementary in Holiday sits at 59 percent capacity, for instance, and Crews Lake Middle in Shady Hills is at 55 percent. Krinn Technical High, opened this year at the former Ridgewood High site, uses just 37 percent of its built capacity, according to the district.

If the decision centers more on the value the schools provide to the children and community, Harding and others also are asking why the administration would want to close successful programs.

Mittye P. Locke consistently has logged in some of the best scores in the state's accountability system among Pasco's west-side schools. Hudson, which struggled for years in the system, has in the past three years markedly improved its performance in addition to its staff morale and community involvement.

Many neighbors and supporters have asked why the district would force students to move to different campuses that would be offering new advanced programs, rather than bringing the programs to the students.

(District officials have pointed to structural concerns with the schools as a driver for their recommendation, saying they'd rather spend available funds on new classroom space than renovating aging space.)

Such a change didn't resonate for the board majority when considering Lacoochee's fate, and several sounded reluctant to treat the others differently.

"Why does it have to be all or nothing?" Harding said, adding that she plans to submit several questions to the district office for further review.

Chairwoman Alison Crumbley wasn't sure whether she'd turn in a list of her own, as the critical issues have been clearly identified for the administration to respond to.

"These are not rocket science questions," Crumbley said. "Plus, we've already been asking these."

The board next meets at 5 p.m. Jan. 15 at River Ridge High School, where the discussion is expected to continue.