By B.C. Manion
Pasco County Schools superintendent Kurt Browning has dropped the idea of closing Moore Mickens Education Center in Dade City.
Browning had been considering a move that would have closed the center and relocated its programs. That proposal would have saved about $1 million to help plug a $23 million budget shortfall the district is facing.
Browning shifted gears on March 12 after hundreds of supporters attended a community meeting on the previous evening in a show of support at the center.
“I have heard the heartfelt pleas from Moore Mickens students, graduates, staff and supporters, and I cannot in good conscience move forward with the recommendation to close the school at this time,” Browning said in a release.
While Moore Mickens will not close, the district will shift the Early Head Start prekindergarten program to Pasco Elementary beginning in the 2013-14 school year.
“The pre-k program belongs at an elementary school with students of that same age group,” Browning said.
The Cyesis teen parent program, FAPE 22 program for Exceptional Education students from age 18 to 22, Adult Education and the Support our Students (SOS) last-chance program all will remain at Moore Mickens.
Even before the meeting began on the evening of March 11, it was obvious that people had rallied to do what they could to keep their beloved Moore Mickens open.
Supporters stood at the center’s gate, holding signs and chanting, “Save our school,” and, “Give us our school back.”
The center’s parking lot was jammed, with people parking on the grass and near the school.
Hundreds crowded into the cafeteria.
Speakers from all walks of life approached the microphone during the meeting, which lasted more than two hours.
At times, the meeting felt like a pep rally — with people singing the school’s alma mater and chanting, “More Moore Mickens. More Moore Mickens.”
At other times, it was like a political rally, with speakers chastising Browning for his proposal and criticizing the school district for what they consider to be unequal educational opportunities on the east and west sides of Pasco.
There was a spiritual element, too, as Margarita Romo, a widely known advocate for migrant workers and social justice, lifted the issue up in prayer. She asked God to intercede to find a way to not only continue to provide programs at Moore Mickens Center, but to expand them.
Browning said despite rumors to the contrary, the district had no intention of closing down the building and bulldozing it.
He told the crowd that part of the rationale for shifting the programs to Pasco High would be to enable the young women who are pregnant to enroll in programs such as Advanced Placement and dual enrollment classes, which would enable them to earn college credits.
But speakers told Browning and school board members that it wasn’t just the building they were worried about. They didn’t want to lose the environment that exists at Moore Mickens.
Dozens weighed in.
Some talked about how Moore Mickens staff members had helped them to get their GED. Others said staff members encouraged them when others had written them off. Some talked about being welcomed at the center when they’d been shunned or bullied elsewhere.
Speakers urged Browning and the school board to find another way to plug the budget gap.
Charlene Austen of Dade City wondered why the district “selected the most vulnerable sector of the student population. These students do not easily adapt.”
She also noted, “You can move students. You can move furniture. You cannot move environment.”
Chris Barber, who works at Moore Mickens, said he previously worked with special needs students at John Long Middle and Wiregrass Ranch High, both schools in Wesley Chapel.
“Here’s the thing,” Barber said, special needs students at those schools “were falling through the cracks. This is a very unique place.”
Lisa Ciganek, a teacher at Moore Mickens, said “a raise is not worth it to me to see these students lose what is working for them. They choose to come here. We see the potential in them. This environment is what gives our kids their future. Please don’t take that away from them.”
Sister Roberta Bailey, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Saint Leo, urged the crowd to voice its support for the school in writing. She urged them to focus on the positive — why Moore Mickens should be kept.
“Moore Mickens is a chance for change,” Bailey said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
That sentiment drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
It turns out those letters of support won’t be needed now.
Browning and the school board must now find another way to come up with the nearly $1 million that would have been saved with his previous proposal, if employees are going to get any type of raise next year, according to the release announcing Browning’s decision. District staff has not received pay increases in six years.