Superintendent to reconsider west-side schools plan after board balks at closures

Board members say they want to continue looking for ways to improve the schools.
Published Feb. 7, 2019

Pasco County school district officials remained confident in their plan to reimagine offerings in schools along the U.S. 19 corridor, even after the School Board on Tuesday effectively nixed the component that would have provided funding to make the project work.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said he and his administrative team would reassess their Project RISE initiative, knowing the board majority's reticence to shutter Hudson and Mittye P. Locke elementary schools. Staffers want to see if they can salvage a proposal that still could add improved academic programs such as International Baccalaureate to campuses that have lacked many advanced alternatives.

"I'm going to hold out hope that we can look at this and see how we can get to where we need to be," Browning said.

Assistant superintendent Vanessa Hilton noted that thousands of west-side parents have indicated their desire for different options, based on their choices to home school, attend charter schools and use district open-enrollment plans. The administration is trying to respond to those interests, Hilton said, by making the dozen schools in the region more competitive and attractive.

"We are focused on equitable opportunities for students," she said.

Board members said they appreciated the administration's efforts to address the clear needs of an area that has seen increasing poverty and mediocre academic performance on state measures. But they considered the Project RISE proposal a starting point, and not the end of the line.

"I think the greatest thing that has come out of this is the conversation about what are we going to do in west Pasco," board chairwoman Alison Crumbley said.

The idea of shutting down two schools to pay for making the other dozen better did not sit well with Crumbley, vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin or board member Megan Harding. Each pointedly asked the administration for ways to bring new education models to children in their existing schools, rather than disrupting them and their communities.

"We need to look deeper" for solutions, Harding said.

During a lengthy workshop Tuesday, Browning tried to make the point that the district faces a degree of urgency in changing the west-side schools.

"Most of these schools are C schools. A couple are D schools," he told the board. "The question is, what are we going to do about it? We have to amp it up. We have got to change the way we deliver education in this district."

His team's plan, Browning continued, was the best it could devise given the financial reality the district faces. No one wants to close schools, he said. But to provide the proposed new opportunities — which would cost about $3 million in program implementation and millions more in classroom additions and renovations — the money had to come from somewhere.

The district can move slowly, he said, "but we will all be gone before we get to where we need to be academically."

Crumbley said she was unsure the district had explored all the possibilities to get to its target. Potentially affected communities had barely been included in the discussions, she said, and less disruptive options to accomplish the stated goal likely exist.

After all, Beaudoin pointed out during debate, the administration has found ways to add Cambridge, AVID and IB to other schools without forcing major shifts of students. In this case, she and others noted, the district does not even have problems with too many open seats.

Hudson Elementary sits at just over 100 percent of its capacity, Harding observed, with more nearby housing development on its way.

"I'd like to know, what can we do without moving students?" Beaudoin told the administration.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong backed the administration plan, and stressed that a disagreement over some details should not end the effort.

"I believe the community wants these opportunities, but they don't want to close schools to obtain them," Armstrong said. "I have to see what the staff comes back with."

Browning said he might or might not bring a revised recommendation to the board at its March 5 meeting.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.