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  1. Education

2018-19: The year the Pasco County School Board said 'no'

Published Jun. 7

The Pasco County school district kicked off the recently ended 2018-19 school year with something new — its first technical high school, serving the western half of the district.

Krinn Technical was a magnet that stood in the place of long-struggling Ridgewood High, which the School Board closed amid concern its student performance on state tests might lead to a forced overhaul, anyway.

Little did anyone anticipate, though, that the district administration would suggest using the close-and-replace model again so soon after exposing some of the raw emotions of shuttering a campus that had served families for four decades.

But that's what happened.

SCHOOL CLOSING PROPOSALS

Superintendent Kurt Browning and his leadership team proposed closing down Lacoochee Elementary in the county's far northeast corner, where the population was shrinking alongside the school's enrollment.

The nearly $1 million in saved operational expenses could go back into added services for students from the mostly low-income, heavily minority community that the leadership team recommended sending to Cox Elementary seven miles away.

A few weeks later, a similar plan emerged for several schools along the US 19 corridor: Close aging Mittye P. Locke and Hudson elementary schools, and using the savings to create a STEAM magnet nearby while adding advanced academic programs at several other schools.

In a county with limited school choice offerings, the proposal stood out as unusual.

So did the School Board's response. The board, which approved the Ridgewood transformation a year earlier, rejected the superintendent's plans to mothball the three schools in order to bolster others.

While they liked the improvements put on the table, board members — bombarded with opposition from parents and educators — said they could not abide closing schools that serve needy communities. They sent the administration back to the drawing board, where new ideas are being drafted for the 2019-20 season.

TRANSGENDER BATTLE

In mid-fall, another controversy surged to the forefront, putting the Pasco district in the national spotlight.

A Chasco Middle School transgender student had requested to use the boys locker room, and the school's physical education teachers wanted to inform the parents of the other students using the space — something they were told not to do to avoid violating the child's privacy. They also resisted monitoring the locker room, saying it would violate their principles.

The activity picked up steam among conservative and church groups, especially after the teachers did not get their way, and they turned to the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel for support.

They took their story to national right-leaning media, and before long dozens of speakers — many from outside the county — began filling board meetings to advocate both for and against transgender student rights. Many vilified the educators who set up procedures they said would protect students, who are considered at higher risk for suicide, saying the majority rights should not be trampled by those of the minority.

The district administration and School Board stood firm in their position, not agreeing to change their rules on restroom use, parent permission slips for club participation, or other demands made by the people who called transgender students "confused" and suggested the district was not on the side of God.

LGBTQ advocates heaped praise on the district for its willingness to leave its approach intact.

Browning said he was most disconcerted by the groups fighting the district, and their unwillingness to listen to facts, while "manufacturing" a story that continues to resound. Some activists have hinted they plan to challenge the board politically if they don't get what they want from the current members.

TEACHER PAY

Representatives for the district and the teachers union said they had hoped to have a contract deal in place early in the year.

They almost didn't get an agreement by the end of the year.

The sides disagreed over terms for performance evaluations, involuntary transfers and planning time. But one of the biggest concerns centered on pay.

Several educators pointed out that Pasco's salaries did not compete with nearby districts. A deal settled in Pinellas County served to highlight that fact, as it became clear it would take a Pasco teacher 16 years to reach the entry-level pay of a teacher in the district to the south.

Board members repeatedly told the administration they wanted to find more money for teacher pay. But the staff reported back that all the unrestricted revenue was absorbed by other uncontrolled costs, such as utilities.

Negotiations stalled in January, as the employee union declaredan impasse. They eventually reached a deal through federal mediation four months later.

But the board continued to harbor concerns that Pasco might lose teachers over the issue. Members again urged the administration to do better, and Browning said he planned to make salaries a higher budget priority in the coming year.

SECURITY

In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting massacre, many Florida school districts stood accused of doing too little to respond.

Pasco took steps to meet as many of the needs, mandates and demands as it could.

It fashioned a school guardian program that met the letter of lawmakers' requirement, without taking the step of allowing teachers to carry guns. Instead, it hired and trained armed security personnel whose sole responsibility was to patrol elementary schools and work with law enforcement.

That model, which cost less than placing police officers on every campus, quickly was adopted by several other districts.

The administration instructed school staff to keep classroom doors and school gates locked at all times, something that had not been done regularly in the past. They continued to work with students on approaches such as Sandy Hook Promise, and to identify other ways to keep schools safe.

The work continues over the summer with door lock replacements, security camera installations, a new emergency reporting app and other initiatives in conjunction with related agencies.

Browning said he will continue to resist allowing teachers to participate as school guardians, noting strong opposition from both faculty and parents, as evidenced in correspondence and a recent online "Thought Exchange" survey.

"A school safety guard doesn't worry about teaching English or math. They're there to monitor the school campus for safety," he said. "A teacher is there to teach."

AND MORE…

The district decided to begin releasing students two hours early once each month, in order to give teachers more dedicated collaborative planning time. That idea begins in September.

The School Board debated the pros and cons of web streaming its meetings, at new member Megan Harding's request. After hashing out some details, such as when to post the recordings and which parts to include, the board agreed to start posting recorded videos of its sessions over the summer.

Several construction projects concluded as the year began, and throughout the following months. Most recently, the Land O' Lakes High multi-year renovation finished up. Next up, the district will begin work to revamp Zephyrhills High, with plans to add a classroom wing to Sunlake High and build a new Cypress Creek Middle School on tap.

Having failed to secure added state funding for its regional aeronautics program, the district gave up any pretense of winning more money and abandoned its annual legislative request. The program continued, with alternate funding sources.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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