Melrose Elementary School parents have been on edge over the past month, as their school district flirted with a plan to close the building as part of a plan to revitalize facilities across Putnam County.
But the community responded to the plan with a coordinated fight to save the school, and the Putnam County School Board heard a revised bid to keep it open in a workshop Wednesday.
“It’s become very evident that that school is tied directly into the very life of the community of Melrose,” Putnam County Associate Superintendent Thomas Bolling said.
As the representative for Melrose, school board member Bud McInnis presented a stack of signed petitions to save the school at the workshop. However, Bolling said they were unnecessary given that the district is officially recommending the new plan that would keep Melrose open.
“I’ve learned enough through all of this to not call it the final recommendation,” Bolling said. “But we’ll call it the latest recommendation.”
Until the school board officially votes on Tuesday, parents will be apprehensive.
In a Jan. 7 workshop, Putnam County School Superintendent Rick Surrency introduced a phased revitalization plan to the school board that called for the closure of five schools at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, including Melrose. The others were E.H. Miller School, Jenkins Middle School, Mellon Elementary School and George C. Miller Jr. Middle School. Melrose was slated to merge with Ochwilla Elementary School.
Under the first phase of the new plan, Jenkins, Georce C. Miller Jr. and E.H. Miller will still close. C.L. Overturf, Jr. Sixth Grade Center will close, and those sixth graders will attend their zoned elementary schools. Pre-K will be removed from four central Putnam elementary schools to make room for the additional sixth grade students, and Mellon will instead become a pre-K center. E.H. Miller students will also relocate to Mellon. C.H. Price Middle School and Interlachen High School will combine.
Every school in the district will have at least some change next year, Bolling said.
Bolling cited declining enrollment and outdated buildings as the primary reasons for implementing this plan. Doing so would conserve funds by consolidating buildings that aren’t being used to their full capacity, which would allow the district to apply for special facilities funding from the state to build new schools as eventual replacements, Bolling said. Currently the district is tied for second in the state for having the oldest facilities, he said.
The district currently has 18 schools but will ultimately reduce to 10.
Nine new schools are planned for construction within 5-10 years.
In the original plan, Melrose was identified as a “money pit.”
Some took offense to this label, which Bolling has since apologized for. It was a term he repeated from a Department of Education evaluation, he said.
“I didn’t stop to think that may offend some people,” he said. “I apologize to the community when I can because … they see their school as their kid’s home away from home.”
Essentially, the district will ultimately get rid of middle schools to adjust the ratio of schools to students, with elementary schools running from kindergarten through sixth grade and high schools offering seventh through 12th grade, Bolling said.
The district will also place a bond referendum on the 2022 ballot that would supply additional funding for the construction of new schools, he said. Special facilities funding can only provide for one project at a time, but if the bond referendum were approved, up to three schools could be under construction at once, he said.
“Brand new schools in a community helps growth in a community,” Bolling said. “So, we’re kind of excited about the possibilities that our district has with ultimately all new schools anywhere between 10 and 15 years from now.”
Melrose will still face reconstruction, but now it will likely remain open during the process.
To avoid displacing Melrose students while building takes place, portables will be used, costing about $50,000 for one year, Bolling said. The community stepped up to make this possible, and so far over $25,000 has been pledged to the nonprofit organization Friends of Melrose to save the school. The money won’t be due unless the district acquires funding for updated buildings.
This new plan didn’t come to fruition without a concentrated effort from the tightknit Melrose community.
As word traveled after the Jan. 7 workshop meeting, pushback from stunned parents ensued.
“We found out through Facebook and through friends,” parent Tiffany Vazquez-Pacheco, 38, said. “The school board never announced anything about it to anybody. I think the teachers, honestly, I don’t even think they were fully aware of what was going on either.
“When we first all found out we were all upset. I mean, most of our kids have been together since kindergarten.”
To Vazquez-Pacheco, an Alachua County resident, the long daily commute to Putnam County is a small price to pay for quality education. Her daughter, Serena Vazquez-Holt, is enrolled in the sixth grade honors program at Melrose Elementary School and her son Dominick Vazquez-Holt attends Q.I. Roberts Jr.-Sr. High School, where he participates in the Cambridge Advanced Program of Studies.
Otherwise a pre-K-5 school, Melrose Elementary is unique in that it offers a single sixth grade classroom geared toward providing accelerated instruction, which some students use as a stepping stone to get into Q.I. Roberts, Vazquez-Pacheco said. If the new plan to keep the school open is adopted, a full sixth grade would be added beyond the current honors classroom.
“That’s the other thing: if they lose Melrose, what are they going to do about this honors program, that you know parents and even students want to apply for to get into?” Vazquez-Pacheco said.
The sixth-grade honors students know their teacher as Ms. Morgan.
“She teaches us more seventh grade stuff,” Serena said. “My brother said pretty much everybody who didn’t go to Ms. Morgan’s class didn’t know anything about the things we learned there.”
A Facebook group called Save Melrose Elementary School has gained traction with over 1,000 members.
“We all band together, like real quick,” Vazquez-Pacheco said, adding that even families that attended the school 20-30 years ago have joined the effort.
She is also concerned because the school supports the town’s business. “You’re going to end up with a town that’s like Waldo. They took the elementary school from Waldo; Waldo is no longer, honestly, it’s falling apart.”
Waldo elementary closed after the 2014-2015 school year, and the town hasn’t been the same since.
On Jan. 8, parents protested outside of Melrose with signs.
“Nobody had watched the board workshop, nobody knew what was really going on, we just knew that Melrose was all of a sudden on a chopping block and we were not OK with that,” said Jackie Huntley, a 39-year-old parent who occasionally substitutes at the school. “It was a knee-jerk reaction from the entire community.”
Huntley said she believes if the district would have proposed this plan a year ago rather than trying to close the schools within a few months, it wouldn’t have received such backlash.
“They would’ve actually gotten people willing to listen and people willing to work out details,” Huntley said. “But the fact that they said we’re closing at the end of this school year and they told us that in January, that was underhanded.”
Bolling said the district has since listened to everybody who has reached out with concerns and has considered every viable solution suggested, keeping in mind both the district’s goals and the best interests of the communities it serves. He said he is proud of the changes that have been made to the original plan to accommodate these communities.
“Hindsight is 20/20 but I’m not sure that I would do anything differently,” Bolling said. “We made the best recommendations that we thought we had at the time.”
The district has had to implement creative solutions to its problems for four years, Bolling said, but he is unsure of when the plan to specifically close schools was first discussed. He said the district has previously explored a number of options to keep schools afloat to avoid closures that would disrupt communities.
“You cut and cut and cut until you can’t cut anymore,” he said. “I always say ‘COVID didn’t cause this but it sure didn’t help it.’”
The pandemic contributed to the district’s declining enrollment issue as some students didn’t return this academic year, he said.
Huntley was among the speakers who delivered emotional pleas to the school board at a meeting held the next week on Jan. 12. Parents from E.H. Miller also spoke at the meeting.
Her son, Connor Huntley, 10, can’t imagine losing his friends.
“I don’t want to say that I’d be killed with devastation, but I’d be killed with devastation,” he said. “Melrose Elementary, and I don’t mean just the different areas in Melrose Elementary, but the staff and the teachers, everything at Melrose, is all of our homes.”
Huntley said that if Melrose closed, her kids would attend school in her native Clay County.
“If Melrose is not Melrose anymore, there is nothing left for us there,” Huntley said.
As a result of the pushback, the district used community feedback to form workgroups and develop the new proposal.
“We’re working with this community because we see the value of having a school in that community and we don’t want to hurt any community in this process,” Bolling said.
Huntley said this proposed revision is “a good safe move by the district to show us that they are listening and that they’re not just ignoring us because we’re so far away from the center of Palatka. Just because they can’t see us doesn’t mean that we don’t exist.”
But if the new proposal is not adopted, Huntley said she and other parents have one last strategy to save Melrose: apply to convert it to a charter school.
Anything to save Melrose would be preferable over the school merging with Ochwilla, Huntley said.
She believes a high level of parent and community involvement makes Melrose Elementary unique, and the students won’t get the same outcome “six miles down the road where the community isn’t there to support them.”
And, she says, Melrose will “shrivel up.”
“In 10 years when they think they’re going to build that new school on the corner, no one will have moved there,” Huntley said.
Other concerns have emerged as well.
Huntley and Vazquez-Pacheco spoke highly of the teachers at Melrose but worry about where instructors could end up should the new plan to keep Melrose not be accepted, despite assurances from the district that the teachers would move to the same schools their current students would be merging with.
Huntley said her first priority is protecting the teachers at Melrose.
“I’m supposed to send my kids to Ochwilla where I don’t know any of the teachers?” Huntley said. “Now listen, I’m not saying anything negative about the teachers, but it took me a long time to establish these relationships.”
Parent Rebekah Wolf, 39, worries about transportation.
“As parents a lot of us are commuting, we live in a rural community,” Wolf said, “commute to Gainesville, Jacksonville and surrounding areas for work, so the bus pickup and drop-off times – the locations are crucial to our ability to get to work and to pick up our kids on time, to make that bus stop.”
Wolf’s son, a seventh grader at Q.I. Roberts, gets picked up by a Melrose Elementary bus. With stops, his bus ride is about an hour, she said. Her daughter is in first grade at Melrose, and goes to a daycare about five minutes away from the school. The daycare currently provides transportation to and from Melrose, she said.
Melrose has 71 students that don’t live in the district, Bolling said. Many would no longer attend school in Putnam County if Melrose closed, which would contribute to the declining enrollment problem, he said.
“A good school closing in a small town can hurt that community,” Wolf said, “but a great school like Melrose Elementary closing can be devastating.”
Below: Small businesses use their sign space to show support for the fight to save Melrose Elementary.