Brevard School Board gets earful over possible school closings

500 show up to protest potential cuts

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VIERA, Fla. - Twenty-one years after Ingrid Combs was named the county's Teacher of the Year, she stood in front of the Brevard School Board and asked its members to reconsider closing Gardendale Elementary School.

Local 6 New partner Florida Today reported that Combs joined almost 500 parents, students, teachers and other community members in asking board members Tuesday night to save Sea Park Elementary in Satellite Beach, South Lake Elementary in Titusville, Gardendale Elementary on Merritt Island and Clearlake Middle in Cocoa.

The proposal to close the four schools came after voters this month rejected a half-cent sales tax increase. The $32 million raised annually from the tax would have been directed toward capital projects, such as building repairs, replacing buses and upgrading technology to meet state mandates. Officials say now they'll need to dip into operating funds, which pay for school programs and teachers' salaries, to cover some of those costs, and so must make cuts.

Combs, a retiree who spent most of her career at Gardendale and still volunteers there, recalled when "white flight" from Gardendale happened after low-income housing was built around the Merritt Island school. That's when the principal at the time wrote the federal magnet grant that transformed the elementary school into "a unique model for learning designed to reverse segregation and draw students back," said Combs, who was honored by the district in 1991.

The board took no action on the proposed closings Tuesday night and forums focused on individual schools are planned in coming weeks, Dane Theodore, the district's head of facilities, explained the reasons behind the closure recommendations. They include boundary considerations and student-body size, as well as the schools' capacity.

Superintendent Brian Binggeli said he'd heard questions about the number of administrators versus teachers in schools. In Brevard, he said, 4,616 people – 54.3 percent of the district's employees – are full-time teachers, opposed to an average of 52 percent statewide.

"What that means is that if we're even equal with the state, we'd have 92.3 less teachers," Binggeli said. "Despite the fact that we're funded less on average than those schools, that's $4.9 million worth of teachers that they don't have working with students."

Binggeli also addressed those who said they didn't know enough about the half-cent sales tax and how it related to the budget before it was defeated. He pointed out numerous, recent Florida Today articles, including a guest editorial penned by Binggeli, all alerting the community to forums on the school's budget woes and the proposed tax.

"The fact is, if we leave excess capacity in these areas by leaving these schools open, we'll need to cut $3 million to $4 million elsewhere," Binggeli said.

Those cuts, he said, could include reduction or elimination of fine arts programs; closing more schools and adding portables; and implementing fees, as in "pay to play sports."

Parents spoke passionately about the trauma their children, some of whom who have changed schools once or twice already, would face by being moved.

South Lake families turned out with the school's name emblazoned on the front of orange T-shirts. They applauded loudly, as did other schools' supporters, when speakers addressed the board.

Bonita Watkins' 7-year-old grandson, diagnosed as autistic, is doing well at South Lake, Watkins said. Closing the school, she said, would "not (be) doing what's good for the child, which is what our district is supposed to be doing."

"He gets speech therapy. He gets all the extra help he needs," Watkins said. "His teachers are excellent … we're contacting everyone we can about this. President Obama. Everyone."

Misty Belford's children are out-of-area students attending South Lake "because we think it's an amazing school with a nurturing and enriching environment and positive academic and social values," she said.

Belford urged the board to "look at all the facts and reject the proposal."

"South Lake is a shining star. It's a beacon of success and hope," she said.

Anelia Orr, a Sea Park parent, praised the school's "terrific programs," saying that the school was also on the chopping block last year before the school board removed it from consideration.

"Sea Park is the heart and center of our community," she said.

Patti Brasington, who attended Sea Park as a child, agreed, praising the committed teachers and the school's place in Satellite Beach history. She wants her three children to be part of that history, she said.

Several students, from elementary-age children to middle-schoolers, had their say, too.

"After only a couple of months there, I stand before you as an eighth-grader ready to do whatever I can to save my school," said Samantha Cavallaro, of Clearlake Middle School.

"Students and teachers have put so much time and effort into making Clearlake the best it can be. The teachers have inspired me to become the best I can be … the admiration I have for them cannot be put into words. I want younger generations to have this life-changing experience … there was so much anger and heartbreak when the rumor went around."

Meanwhile, the Brevard School Board voted unanimously to fire the Heritage High band director for alleged professional misconduct.

James Wilkins was accused of making inappropriate comments of a sexual nature to students, permitting the use of ethnic nicknames for minority students and publicly humiliated students.

Wilkins' attorney has said his client will challenge the termination.

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