Evergreen Elementary likely to close

Eric Cummings speaks during a meeting of the Marion County Public School Board in Ocalain this March 23 file photo. The board is poised to vote to close Evergreen Elementary School on Tuesday. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
The Marion County School Board is poised to close Evergreen Elementary School despite years of fighting to keep the school open.

During a May 20 workshop, at least three of the five board members signaled they would vote to close the school located at 4000 W Anthony Rd. The board will officially vote on the issue at its regular meeting on Tuesday evening.

The fate of Evergreen has been an issue since 2018 when then School Superintendent Heidi Maier recommended closure of the elementary school and suggested the campus transition to a magnet middle school. The school had a string of D or F grades based on assessment tests administered by the Florida Department of Education.

The board, however, decided to hire an outside operator to try and improve the school’s performance. Things did not improve, and in 2019, the board switched outside operators from Educational Directions to a company headed by retired Marion County principal Jayne Ellspermann.

That same year, Ellspermann’s company also took on Oakcrest Elementary, another struggling school. The board paid Ellspermann’s company $270,000 to oversee Evergreen and $300,000 for Oakcrest for the 2019-2020 school year. Educational Directions charged $400,000 for Evergreen alone in 2018-19.

But then the pandemic hit, and the DOE canceled the spring assessment tests after schools closed due to COVID-19 and did not issue school grades. While the state did assessments this school year, results are not expected until August, just as the 2021-2022 school year begins.

The state gives up to three years for a school to improve, or it will order it shut down. Presumably, if Evergreen does not score a C on its latest assessment, it could be ordered closed just as school starts.

Board Chairwoman Nancy Thrower was frustrated by the state’s decision not to consider the school’s practice tests from the 2019-2020 school year. The practice tests showed the school was poised to score a B.

While she did not directly commit to voting for the closure of Evergreen, Thrower signaled it was probably best for the students involved.

“(These are) circumstances that are beyond our control in many ways,” Thrower said. “What (students) do need is stability. The best way to provide that is through thoughtful and appropriate transition.”

Board members Allison Campbell, Kelly King and Beth McCall did signal they would vote to close the school.

“This is painful,” King said. “We were really working hard to keep Evergreen open.”

McCall also was frustrated by the state’s unwillingness to take the pandemic into account.

“I think our hands are totally tied,” she said. “As much as I hate to, at this point, I don’t think we will have another option.”

Board member Eric Cummings said he would not vote to close the school, but his vote was on principle. He understood why other board members would vote to close.

Voting to close the school now would allow the roughly 250 students at Evergreen to have time to transition to a new school. The struggles had already taken a toll. The school’s registration is well below its 700-student capacity, and many teachers have already transferred from the school.

Oakcrest Elementary, 1112 NE 28th St., is in a similar boat, but it still has another year to improve its school grade. For the 2021-2022 school year, however, it won’t be Ellspermann’s company serving as the outside operator.

During the workshop, board members seemed poised to award the contract to TNTP, Inc., a non-profit company based in New York. They will vote on the contract on Tuesday during their meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the school board chambers at 512 SE Third Street.

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