School board votes to close Evergreen Elementary

Nancy Thrower, the chair of the Marion County School Board, speaks during Tuesday’s meeting. The board voted 3-2 to close Evergreen Elementary. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 
The Marion County School Board voted 3-2 on Tuesday to close Evergreen Elementary School ending a years-long effort to keep the school open.

Wednesday is the last school day.

Despite the vote, all five board members conceded the decision to close the school at 4000 W Anthony Rd. was the fiscally sound one.

“I do understand the fiscal reasons, but I cannot conscientiously vote for the closing of that school,” said Board Member Eric Cummings.

Board Chairwoman Nancy Thrower joined Cummings in voting against the closure, but she classified it as a protest vote, saying the closing was the prudent thing to do.

“I have to say there have been years of questionable decision making when it came to staffing and who the principals were going to be and turnover year after year. That type of management doesn’t create success,” Thrower said.

But she also directed her frustration to the state’s Department of Education, which sealed the school’s fate when it did not take into consideration improving school grades just before the pandemic broke out in 2020. The DOE canceled the spring assessment tests after schools closed due to COVID-19 and did not issue school grades. Practice tests signaled the school was poised to score a B, but the DOE would not accept unofficial results.

With no leniency from the state, the school was stuck. While the state gave assessment tests this school year, results are not expected until July or August, just as the 2021-2022 school year begins.

Presumably, if Evergreen did not score a C on this year’s assessment, it would have been ordered closed just as classes begin, leaving students scrambling to find a new school.

“They were on their way to earning it and got told no. It is as simple as that,” Thrower said.

The fate of Evergreen has been an issue since 2018 when then School Superintendent Heidi Maier recommended the 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 DOE.

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

The board paid Ellspermann’s company $270,000 to oversee for the 2019-2020 school year. Educational Directions charged $400,000 in 2018-19.

“I am disappointed in the Department of Education and the fact that when they could have used our data a year ago to help keep Evergreen open, they chose not to use the data,” said Board Member Beth McCall. “This is not an easy decision for this board.”

Voting to close the school now would allow the roughly 200 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 already transferred from the school.

The board will decide how to use the school building in the future.

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