Worrying about her kids going to a new school was the last thing Kim Ferris needed.
The mother of two elementary school students was splitting her time between a nursing job, a nearly 40-minute drive twice a week to classes at Pasco-Hernando State College and caring for her elderly mother.
“I would have to homeschool,” Ferris said. “It’s impossible for me to move.”
Ferris’ fifth-grader Adeina and third-grader Ivanna will be two of the nearly 580 students displaced if the Hernando County School District decides to shut down Westside Elementary in Spring Hill.
Westside is the most likely of four schools the district could shut down after the school year to save money.
Fox Chapel Middle, Eastside Elementary and Moton Elementary schools also face temporary or permanent closure, school district public relations manager Roy Gordon said.
The goal is to save money by consolidating the district’s schools due to low enrollment and high maintenance costs. With its leaky roof and 40-year-old infrastructure, Westside is the most likely candidate.
“What we’re going to be doing next year with Westside is a priority item,” Gordon said.
Many parents are skeptical of the district’s intentions regarding Westside, saying they were only recently informed of the issues. At a recent meeting at Westside, parents asked the board why the school’s repairs weren’t maintained.
“They’re telling us there’s no money,” said parent Tara Abrams-Ruer. “But where did our money go for this school?”
With high unemployment and declining enrollment in the county, the tax base for the schools has not provided enough funds to keep up with repairs, Gordon said. The district has also clashed with the state legislature over sharing funding with local charter schools.
Hernando County’s unemployment rate is currently 8.6 percent, one of the highest in the area and higher than the statewide rate of 6.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The district itself started a hiring freeze this month, Gordon said.
The board is evaluating various scenarios for closing or repairing the schools, but they will have to make a decision by the end of the end of the school year, Gordon said. They will review a final report on building conditions on May 6.
At a meeting April 15, architects explained to parents and board members that the school needed major repairs, especially on its roof. The cost of the necessary repairs is about $3 million.
The board reminded parents that rain-soaked ceiling tiles had recently fallen in over computers. In his presentation, architect Steve Johnson displayed pictures of water leaking into lighting fixtures.
With a rainy season coming, there was a chance that the building could become too unsafe for the next school year, Johnson said.
Whether Westside closes temporarily or permanently, the school’s 580 students will be moved 14 miles away to Pine Grove Elementary School.
At a low-income school, many working families don’t have the means to pick up their kids if they’re sick or have special needs, parent Abbey Pallante said.
With about 81 percent of Westside’s students receiving free or reduced lunch, teachers at the school try to reach out to their families, said fourth grade teacher Melissa Tomlinson.
For three years, the school has run a food and clothing pantry for the school’s needy families, a service unique to Westside, she said. The pantry services about 25 families a month with donations and grants.
The outspoken parents hope they can remain at Westside, even if students will have to study in portable classrooms during the repairs. Parents have started a petition and a Facebook page to save the school.
Moving students who typically walk to school and have so many services minutes away, like the Boys and Girls Club, would be a major adjustment, Gordon said. Portables would be too expensive, costing about $1.3 million, and making students come to a school under construction would be dangerous.
Busing students from Westside to Pine Grove would cost $240,000 a year, he said.
Kim Ferris worries her daughters may get a bus without air conditioning and what a change in schools means for her neighborhood.
“To break that community would be devastating to a lot of families that depend on those needs,” she said.