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How school board members stand on closing Tampa’s Just Elementary

Some members said not enough had been done to save the school. Some said it was beyond saving. A seventh was torn.
 
Students work at a laptop at Just Elementary in West Tampa, which is being considered for closure by the Hillsborough  County School Board.
Students work at a laptop at Just Elementary in West Tampa, which is being considered for closure by the Hillsborough County School Board. [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]
Published April 19, 2023|Updated April 19, 2023

The margin of votes concerning Tampa’s Just Elementary School was razor thin, with Hillsborough School Board member Lynn Gray “on the fence” before she cast her tie-breaking ballot Tuesday to close the historic West Tampa school.

Setting up the discussion, Superintendent Addison Davis revealed dismal results from the latest state competency tests. Only 11% of Just’s third graders read on grade level, he said. In fourth grade: 8%. In fifth grade, 3%.

Despite bonuses offered to teachers, only 11 out of 18 slots could be filled at the school where enrollment has fallen to 283 despite room for 598.

Nevertheless, Black leaders spoke out against the closing, saying families would suffer if their children had to travel greater distances; and that not enough had been done to get the community involved before declaring the 83% Black school unsalvageable.

“This is not over,” Tampa Organization of Black Affairs board member James Ransom said on Wednesday morning. Another vote on Just is needed May 9 before the decision is final.

With more closures contemplated as the district struggles with low enrollment and disappointing achievement levels at some schools, here is where the seven elected officials stood on Tuesday.

District 1, Nadia Combs, voted YES on the closing:

Hillsborough County School Board chairperson Nadia Combs.
Hillsborough County School Board chairperson Nadia Combs. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The board chair has consistently supported the superintendent’s efforts to redraw school boundaries —including closing some schools — to improve efficiency and consistency.

Of Just, she said, “I feel like we have failed those students, and we can’t continue to fail them. There have been so many services provided in that school. There’s been different programs. There’s been supervisors, there’s been funding, there’s been rebranding.”

But none of it has worked and money is tight. “I would love to keep a school open with 200 students,” Combs said. But “I don’t have that option any more.”

District 2, Stacy Hahn, voted YES.

Hillsborough County School Board member
Stacy Hahn
Hillsborough County School Board member Stacy Hahn [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Hahn agreed with Combs that it is time for the district to cut its losses at Just.

“It’s not about a name on a building,” she said, responding to remarks about scientist Ernest Everett Just, for whom the school was named.

“It’s not about the adults. This is about 284 kids. Look at the data. These kids are in crisis. I have worked at turnaround schools; I can recognize this. They are in jeopardy. Please do not risk their future.”

District 3, Jessica Vaughn, voted NO.

Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn
Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Vaughn was moved by the speakers who offered to get involved and rescue the school. She has been frustrated throughout the boundary project by what she says is a lack of outreach. She wanted to give Just more time to improve.

“What I haven’t heard, and what I am hearing today, is the community saying, ‘challenge us,’” Vaughn said. “Challenge accepted.”

She added, “what I think will happen if we close the school, our Black and brown community will distrust us more.”

District 4, Patti Rendon, voted YES.

Hillsborough County School Board member Patricia “Patti” Rendon
Hillsborough County School Board member Patricia “Patti” Rendon [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Rendon agreed with Hahn about the futility of keeping a school open after multiple efforts and initiatives failed to yield results.

She noted that more than half the children zoned for the school are learning elsewhere under the district’s choice system.

“There’s a large part of our community that we’re not speaking about,” Rendon said, “and that community has spoken very loudly. They have made the choice to leave. ... They are making their voices heard by leaving Just.”

District 5, Henry “Shake” Washington, voted NO.

Hillsborough County School Board member Henry “Shake” Washington
Hillsborough County School Board member Henry “Shake” Washington [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Washington stood with Black leaders who reflected on Tampa’s history of segregation and the substandard education for minority students.

“I’m 74 years old and nothing has changed,” he said. “It’s always our communities, always our kids...

“I just fail to believe, like Hell, that we can’t get that school passing. I just can’t believe that in today’s society, seventh largest school district in America, we can’t get 254 kids passed because we can’t get teachers or whatever the case might be.”

District 6, Karen Perez, voted NO.

Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez
Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Perez echoed Washington’s outrage. “When have you gotten together with the community to ask what they can do?” she asked the superintendent.

Perez accused Just’s principal of making insensitive remarks about the children and their families. And she questioned the efforts Davis has made to send resources for Just’s students.

“If you had your staff in there teaching them, then shame on you because apparently they didn’t learn anything from your staff,” she said.

District 7, Lynn Gray, voted YES after considering a no vote.

Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray
Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Early, Gray said she agreed with Vaughn about giving Just a second chance. “The challenge hasn’t been given to the community, and I think it’s time for them to step up.” she said. “The will of the people is so important.”

In the end, she said, “So I’m down to what’s more important, the community, which I think is so critical, or the children? Well, it’s a horrible choice to make.”

But “the children are going to be my priority. That is the bottom line.”