District stands behind decision to close schools
By Chris Fish
BREVARD -- A battle for the future of some of Brevard's students still lingers, as several community leaders and parents are frantically trying to halt the closings of three local schools.
On March 21, Brevard County Commissioners filed a lawsuit against the Brevard County School Board after a unanimous vote on March 19, in an attempt to halt the closings of Gardendale Elementary on Merritt Island, Clearlake Middle in Cocoa and South Lake Elementary in Titusville.
Brevard County Attorney Scott Knox said the suit was prompted after the School Board violated multiple agreements between the county and the school district, which the board represents.
The School Board, which voted to close the schools in an attempt to save about $2.5 million a year, as part of cutting $30 million from the district budget, argues it did nothing wrong after a half-cent sales tax was voted down by Brevard County voters in November.
"In the face of a significant budget shortfall, we are charged with reducing expenditures by over $30 million, while doing all that we can to protect the people and programs that serve all the children," said Brian Binggeli, superintendent of Brevard Public Schools, in a statement. "As part of that effort, we are closing schools in areas where we have excess capacity in order to shift resources to those critical programs. The inter-local agreement supports this action, as it repeatedly notes that it is the Board's responsibility to 'demonstrate that the utilization of school capacity is maximized to the greatest extent possible.'"
In the press statement, Mr. Binggeli continued his support of the School Board's decision.
"County Commissioners, however, believe that it is more appropriate to cut programs or defer our capital infrastructure responsibilities to the next generation of leaders and citizens," he said. "We disagree. In the end, they can't recommend against school closures because the data won't support that."
According to the rules, established by 7110-Student Accommodation in Brevard County Bylaws and Policies, student capacity is based on permanent utilization, which is described as a count based upon permanent facilities, rather than temporary classrooms.
When looking at permanent utilization for the three schools approved for closures by the district, figures listed on the school district's website shows Gardendale Elementary with a 72 percent permanent utilization and Clearlake Middle with 67 percent permanent utilization, making these two schools the lowest utilized elementary and middle schools in the central area of Brevard County for the 2012-13 school year.
South Lake Elementary is recorded at a 99 percent permanent utilization in the North/Merritt Island area of the county for the 2012-13 school year.
However, also in the North/Merritt Island area of the county, Audubon Elementary in Merritt Island is reported to be at a 64 percent permanent utilization, with Roosevelt Elementary at a 69 percent permanent utilization.
Misty Belford, Parent-Teacher-Organization president at Oak Park Elementary in Titusville, said her school will receive numerous students from South Lake Elementary next year to accommodate for the closure.
According to the school districts' projections, Oak Park Elementary has 888 available spaces for capacity, but Ms. Belford argues that this is not telling the whole story.
"When you look at how classrooms are used," she said, "the district doesn't take into account the actual numbers. With the closure, we will be losing our speech therapy classrooms, guidance conference rooms and offices."
According to regulations established by the Florida Inventory of School Houses, computer labs, guidance offices and other vocational classrooms are counted differently for permanent utilization, due to a variety of students coming in and out of the classroom throughout the day.
To accommodate for this, Ms. Belford said the district is converting several of these rooms into intermediate and primary classrooms, including using computer labs and occupational therapy rooms as primary classrooms.
For the 2013-14 school year, Ms. Belford said a newsletter issued to parents by Oak Park Elementary principal Ron Dedmon predicts there to be a total of 832 students at the school next year. This will put the school at 94 percent permanent utilization, if classrooms are adequately used, as defined by regulations by Florida Inventory of School Houses.
Michelle Irwin, director of district communication for Brevard County Public Schools, said regulations established by F.I.S.H. will not be violated by the district and disputed the Oak Park Elementary numbers.
"The official enrollment projection for Oak Park for the 2013-14 school year is 800, for a capacity utilization of 90 percent," she said.
Currently, Oak Park Elementary School has 687 students, which is 77 percent permanent capacity.
The School District is also in the midst of a racial discrimination suit, filed by Orlando Civil Rights Attorney Shayan Elahi.
The suit argues that the schools closed had a high minority rate.
According to PublicSchoolReview.com, minority enrollment for South Lake Elementary is 51 percent, 42 percent for Gardendale Elementary and 39 percent for Clearlake Middle.
As of press time, both lawsuits were scheduled to go before Circuit Court Judge George Maxwell Tuesday, April 2.