The Hillsborough County School Board has voted 4-3 to close West Tampa’s Just Elementary School, effective at the end of this school year.
The decision will become official if it survives a second vote on May 9. Students now at Just will be transferred to Tampa Bay Boulevard and Booker T. Washington elementary schools.
Voting to close the school were board members Stacy Hahn, Nadia Combs, Patti Rendon and Lynn Gray, who earlier in the evening said she was “on the fence,” but ultimately agreed to the closure.
Dissenting votes came from Henry “Shake” Washington, Jessica Vaughn and Karen Perez.
Tuesday’s discussion and vote, although affecting just one small school, marks an important juncture as the nation’s seventh-largest district grapples with the dilemma of schools with too many empty seats.
With 283 students, Just is 83% Black and the only school in the district to have an F grade from the state. It borders the now-shuttered North Boulevard Homes, a public housing project that used to send its children to the school.
The school has room for nearly 600 students, but nearly half of the 519 children zoned for it based on their address instead opt for magnet schools, such as nearby Dunbar Elementary; charter schools like the Channelside Academy of Math and Science; or other schools, under the district’s choice system, that have empty seats.
Just is not unique among Hillsborough schools. Dozens more are a third to half empty. Several were slated to be repurposed in a sweeping boundary plan that aimed to save money and improve student services by making the system more efficient.
Superintendent Addison Davis decided to delay most of the boundary changes until August 2024 after getting pushback from parents and community members. Families at prestigious Plant High School and Coleman Middle School resisted the idea of being moved to Jefferson High or Pierce Middle School. In Tampa’s urban core, minority leaders raised concerns about neighborhoods losing schools.
But Davis said the children at Just were not getting an adequate education and something needed to be done more immediately. He cited low scores this year on state skills tests and chronic teacher vacancies.
Leaders in the Black community spoke at the start of the meeting, pleading with the board not to disrupt the children’s routine or make them travel greater distances to school.
Davis said the idea of closing a school “openly breaks my heart.” But, he said, “if you look at the analytics and take emotion out, the answer is no.”
Washington sided with community leaders who said school closings invariably have the greatest effect on minority families. “I’m 74 years old and nothing has changed,” Washington said. “It’s always our communities. It’s always our kids.”
Others said the information about teacher vacancies and students’ poor academic skills was too compelling to ignore. “These kids are in crisis,” Hahn said.
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Gray said the question forced the board to choose between the community’s desires and the children’s needs. “The children are going to be my priority, that is the bottom line,” she said before siding with Rendon, Combs and Hahn.
A sixth iteration of Davis’ larger school boundary plan is expected to come before the school board in May.
Davis and his leadership team say efficiency is needed to keep the system from slipping into the kind of budgetary deficits that incurred threats of a state takeover in 2021. Pending state legislation that would give scholarships to families who do not use public schools could strain the budget even more.
And, unlike Pasco, Pinellas and other districts, the Hillsborough district has not convinced voters to approve a special property tax to boost teacher pay.
But Davis and his team said money was not the issue in deciding to close Just. They said they simply could not find a way to make it a viable school.
In a separate vote that will also require a second reading, the board voted unanimously to convert Carrollwood Elementary to a K-8 school.