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Tonight's vote may decide fate of Lacoochee Elementary

Lacoochee Elementary School serves a mostly poor and minority community in northeast Pasco County. Pasco school superintendent has proposed closing the school and moving the students to Cox Elementary School about seven miles away, starting with the 2019-20 school year. The School Board was scheduled to make a decision on the proposal on Dec. 18, 2018.
Lacoochee Elementary School serves a mostly poor and minority community in northeast Pasco County. Pasco school superintendent has proposed closing the school and moving the students to Cox Elementary School about seven miles away, starting with the 2019-20 school year. The School Board was scheduled to make a decision on the proposal on Dec. 18, 2018.
Published Dec. 18, 2018

Pasco County School Board members face a difficult decision tonight.

Do they act in the name of efficiency and vote to close Lacoochee Elementary, a struggling school with declining enrollment and resources that might be better used elsewhere?

Or do they keep it open, preserving a school that stands as one of the few remaining anchors of a high-poverty community in a remote corner of the county?

School superintendent Kurt Browning has recommended closing the campus, but a majority of the board's five members have expressed reservations about his proposal, which includes reassigning Lacoochee students to Cox Elementary about 7 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 time last week 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 have researched bus routes, school choice data, enrollment trends and other factors in the run up to the 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 stability.

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

"I definitely see how that is the center of the community," said board member Megan Harding, who worked in a low-income 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, with no signs of a rebound.

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 a charter school at the site, and he says a magnet wouldn't attract enough students.

Moving students and staff to Cox, and adding more support staff to provide services for families in need, looks to be the best bet, Browning said, noting his plan also includes expansion of an accelerated curriculum at 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."

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 close attention after facing blistering criticism from some quarters for the board's handling of other rezonings and the closure of Ridgewood High in the past two years.

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"I am torn," vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin said. "I haven't made up my mind, but I have a whole bunch of notes and questions."

A teacher herself, Beaudoin said she wants to hear more from those who work most closely with 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 school that combines the county's two campuses with the highest levels of impoverished children is the best solution.

"Those children have been taken from, a lot," Harding said.

That notion resonated with Crumbley, as well. She said she worried that what seems a short drive to more well-off people could be a 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, Crumbley said, it became clear that the board's decision can have far-reaching implications. So getting it right matters, she said.

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 vote, having listened to various parties.

The board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at district headquarters in Land O'Lakes.

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

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