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Pasco plans $250 million schools improvement project

The initiative would include new construction, campus renovations and the closure of one school.
Perennially struggling Hudson Elementary is again recommended for closure by Pasco County school district officials as they aim to reboot education offerings in west-side schools and throughout the county.

LAND O’ LAKES — Aiming to bolster academic offerings while also providing more choices to families, the Pasco County School District administration has proposed a sweeping set of projects that would revamp several campuses across the system.

The concept, presented to the School Board during a Tuesday afternoon workshop, comes a year after superintendent Kurt Browning called for similar changes in both the eastern and western sections of the county. The board rejected those plans, largely because they included shuttering three schools. But members encouraged the staff to keep seeking solutions to poor outcomes in the schools with the neediest students.

The new approach builds upon the previous recommendations and goes further. It would establish new magnet programs, build new schools and renovate others, with a total price tag estimated at nearly a quarter-billion dollars.

“We never quit,” deputy superintendent Ray Gadd said. “We were still working on ideas.”

Related: Pasco school district proposes overhaul of offerings along US 19 corridor

The latest plan would again include shutting down Hudson Elementary School, a controversial idea that emerged a year ago but gained no traction with the School Board amid community complaints. Mittye P. Locke and Lacoochee elementary schools, also tagged for closure in 2018, no longer appear on the list.

The board still would have to approve closing Hudson. Much has changed at the school in the intervening year, though, and board support appears more possible.

Board member Alison Crumbley, for instance, has spoken of ongoing struggles at the school and called for bold action to do more for the students and families at Hudson Elementary and throughout west Pasco, perhaps including consolidation. Crumbley, who opposed the initial plan, requested Tuesday’s workshop and afterward praised the initiative.

“We didn’t vote for it last year because it wasn’t enough,” she said. "This is better."

Board member Megan Harding, who also disapproved the 2018 version, said she had not made up her mind on the new model. But she expressed satisfaction that the administration had taken steps to ensure if change occurs, the wraparound services will be plentiful and the transition should be smooth.

“Just dropping in a program isn’t going to fix it,” Harding said. “It’s also what are we going to do next.”

Before the session took place, word of Hudson’s possible fate had already begun spreading in the community. The faculty and staff were informed in the morning, and by noon many parents knew, too.

The district sent a detailed phone call to Hudson families at 3 p.m.. Some planned to attend the board meeting at 6 p.m. to express their dismay.

“I thought we had more time" for the new principal and teachers to turn things around, said PTA president Joanne Delli Paoli, who called the Tampa Bay Times to raise concerns. “A lot of people are upset.”

Superintendent Kurt Browning stressed that the recommended closure of Hudson Elementary, which has lost nearly 70 students and almost half of its teachers since the year began, should not be the focus of the attention. It would be a way to put the children, many of whom come from low-income households, on a new educational trajectory.

“Those kids deserve better,” he said. Hudson has earned only one state grade above D in the past nine years.

The plan would transfer most of the Hudson Elementary students to Northwest Elementary, which shares a campus with Hudson middle and high schools. The district would transform the entire campus, using the advanced Cambridge Programme as an academic base and also providing community and social services to students, their families and area residents.

“One of the things we miss the boat on when we’re trying to figure out how to deal effectively with low-income communities is, how do you get them more involved in the schools,” Gadd said. “Our goal is to create an environment on campus where parents come” to get their children, but also to receive services and find help as they need it.

The elementary and high schools would get major renovations, funded by the Penny for Pasco revenue. And the configurations would change. Northwest would serve prekindergarten through third grade, emphasizing early education. The middle school would serve grades four through eight, and the high school would remain a ninth- through twelfth-grade site.

The high school would expand its dual enrollment program. Currently, the school lists only one dual enrollment offering.

All this would begin in 2021, with the final remodeling of Hudson High completed by 2023.

Other components of the proposal include:

• Converting Marlowe Elementary in New Port Richey into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) magnet school. Creating a 4-acre playground/park on the site for community use. (Targeted for 2021)

• Building a sixth- to 12th-grade STEM magnet academy on U.S. 41 in Land O’ Lakes, either by the Tierra del Sol development or in the Connerton subdivision. The nearby Sanders STEAM elementary magnet would feed into this campus. (2023)

• Renovating Gulf High School. (2023)

• Building a K-8 STEM magnet school in or near the Epperson Ranch development of Wesley Chapel. (2024)

• Creating a STEM magnet at Centennial Elementary in Zephyrhills to fit with a similar program at neighboring Centennial Middle.

• If financially possible, renovating Gulf Middle School and the Hudson Elementary buildings, which could be used for different district functions.

Browning said he is committed to this project as a way to improve education. It is in line with past efforts such as the Sanders STEAM, magnets at Centennial and Bayonet Point middle schools, he said, and the recently opened Krinn Technical High.

Seeking a third term in office, Browning has come under fire — particularly in west Pasco — for not taking aggressive steps to turn around years of mediocre student outcomes. Former state senator John Legg, who operates a charter school, has called out the inaction and announced efforts by his charter to step into the void.

Related: Dayspring charter school wants to improve education in west Pasco. ‘We’re not waiting.’

Browning’s said his latest proposal, with the exception of closing Hudson Elementary, can be done without a board vote. Funding already is in place for most of the work, he said, adding that he intends to ask the board to vote on Hudson Elementary in early 2020.

The district plans a parent meeting for Hudson Elementary families on Jan. 16.

Board chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin said communication will be key.

“If we can work as a team with our community and staff, this is more likely to be a success,” she said.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong predicted support as information emerges: “As word comes out, I think it’s going to overcome a lot of objections.”

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

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