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Second vote seals closing of Tampa’s Just Elementary

Sixty public speakers were at Tuesday’s Hillsborough County School Board meeting, many to address the Just issue.
 
A large audience showed up for the Hillsborough County School Board meeting on Tuesday, where the agenda included the closure of Just Elementary School in Tampa. Many wore purple and gold, the colors of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Ernest Everett Just, the school's namesake, was the fraternity's original faculty adviser.
A large audience showed up for the Hillsborough County School Board meeting on Tuesday, where the agenda included the closure of Just Elementary School in Tampa. Many wore purple and gold, the colors of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Ernest Everett Just, the school's namesake, was the fraternity's original faculty adviser. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]
Published May 9, 2023|Updated May 10, 2023

Repeating its vote in April, the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday decided 4-3 to close West Tampa’s Just Elementary School.

Board members said they were moved to action by statistics showing that nearly half the classes were being taught by substitutes and few students were proficient in reading and math.

As before, the motion was carried by board members Nadia Combs, Lynn Gray, Stacy Hahn and Patti Rendon. Dissenting votes were cast by Jessica Vaughn, Henry “Shake” Washington and Karen Perez.

“Everything I know about education says that these students are in jeopardy and in crisis,” Hahn said. “If we want to close the achievement gap, we have to do right by these children tonight.”

Students will be transferred either to Booker T. Washington or Tampa Bay Boulevard elementary schools. They will also be allowed to choose among three nearby magnet elementary schools: Dunbar, Lockhart or Tampa Heights. They will have a chance to meet leaders from all five schools at an upcoming parents night at Just.

Superintendent Addison Davis has said he will not sell the building, but will remodel and reopen it under a new format after a year or more. He recommended Tuesday that the reopened school should have a Montessori focus.

Davis also said he would coordinate with community organizations, churches and parents to identify the best ways to support the students who will be leaving Just.

“We understand that, within this role, difficult decisions have to be made,” he said.

With 284 students, Just is 83% Black and the only school in the district to have an F grade from the state. Once bordering a now-shuttered public housing complex, the property sits in an area of high-end development along the Hillsborough River.

The school has room for 600 students. But nearly half of the 519 children assigned there are instead attending magnet schools, charter schools or other schools that have extra space under the district’s choice system.

Davis, who is trying to consolidate underenrolled schools to make the system more efficient and ensure full services to children, decided to delay most of the boundary changes until August 2024 after getting pushback from parents and community members.

He also relented when South Tampa families did not want their children transferred from prestigious Plant High School and Coleman Middle School to lower-graded Jefferson High or Pierce Middle School.

But Davis made an exception at Just, saying that despite the district’s best efforts, it could not entice teachers to work there and the children’s skill levels were stubbornly low.

Because of escalating property values in West Tampa, the decision on Just was met with suspicion. It also angered Black community leaders who argued that, instead of closing the school and moving children out, the district needed to give the school the resources it needed to succeed.

In community meetings since the first vote on April 18, members of the Urban League of Hillsborough County, the Tampa Organization for Black Affairs and the area NAACP spoke out against the closing. Petitions were circulated and community organizers tried to rally parents to turn out at school board meetings.

Sixty public speakers were at Tuesday’s meeting, many to address the Just issue.

In addition to several who have spoken before, there was Hillsborough County Commission member Gwen Myers, who attended Just when it was a junior high school.

“I come today to ask you to do what’s right,” Myers told the school board. “I’m an elected official just like you. When I listen to the people, the people come first.”

Parent Alexandra Cruz, who stood before the board with her two small children, said if the school were to close, she would have trouble reaching them when they are sick.

Just Elementary parent Alexandra Cruz asks the Hillsborough County School Board not to close the school. Also appearing on the screen in the board meeting room are her children De'andre and Deantae Durston, and community activist Robin Lockett. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Just Elementary parent Alexandra Cruz asks the Hillsborough County School Board not to close the school. Also appearing on the screen in the board meeting room are her children De'andre and Deantae Durston, and community activist Robin Lockett. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

“Half of us didn’t even know Just was closing,” she said.

Davis moved the discussion and vote on Just to the top of the agenda to accommodate the large crowd. Some in the audience heckled him as he spoke, however.

He stated his case to close the school, using data: Hardly any of the students at Just were proficient in reading and math this year, and 7 out of 18 teaching positions were vacant despite offers of bonuses ranging from $7,500 to $15,000.

Board members Rendon and Gray, like Hahn, agreed that the best thing to do for Just’s children would be to move them elsewhere for instruction from qualified teachers.

Washington, Vaughn and Perez, however, continued to stress the disconnect between what the district thought was best and what the community wanted for its children.

In addition to accommodating the Plant High School parents, the district worked with Carrollwood parents to expand their elementary school expanded through eighth grade.

“When they organized, we listened to those communities,” Vaughn said. “And here it is, communities of color, and we say we know what is best up here.”

Washington said that although the idea of a temporary closing might be a good one, “it may not open again.” Perez said too many minority students are bused out of their neighborhoods to learn, and the Just closing will add to that problem.

Gray, who had wavered in her April vote and was considered the tiebreaker, said she was encouraged by plans for the advisory group and Montessori school.

But, although she voted with the majority, she said, “I know the sensitivity of having things taken away from you time in and time out. No one should have a school taken away from them.”

Combs, the board chairperson, placed the decision in the context of state funding shortfalls that are forcing the district to be efficient with its resources.

“What am I supposed to do, not pay teachers? Not pay bus drivers?” she asked. “For me, it all comes down to students, what’s best for students.”