When John Legg first tweeted out a cryptic message in May about hope being on the way for Pasco County schools, wheels started spinning in political circles.
— John Legg (@JohnLeggFL) May 8, 2019
Was the charter school operator and former state lawmaker, who crafted much of Florida’s education policy law over a decade, hinting at a run to become the county’s next superintendent?
Legg, out of office since 2016 when he chose not to seek reelection to the Senate, coyly refused to explain his social media post, except to say he’d offer more details once classes ended.
Last week, he and his wife, Suzanne, the founding administrator of their Dayspring Academy, made their reveal. And it wasn’t about politics or elections.
It was about trying to expand education opportunities to children and families in western Pasco County — something they say the local school district has needed to do, but not accomplished, over several years.
Their initiative includes a new 200-student precollegiate high school in 2020, a second elementary school for about 300 children in 2021, new middle school buildings to replace portables, and added outdoor fields for the preschool. The elementary school would be modeled on the creative problem-solving Odyssey of the Mind competition.
The Leggs are calling the effort “Operation Hope,” and they’re putting it together with what they view as the community’s true leaders, as opposed to appointed and elected officials.
“If they’re not going to do something, we’re going to do it,” Suzanne Legg said. “Our community needs quality education for the people who are right here. We’ve been here 20 years. We’re going to deliver it.”
School district officials have made the case for the need themselves, noting rising crime and poverty in the area where only one “traditional” public school regularly has earned a state grade above C. Superintendent Kurt Browning went so far as to propose an improvement plan that included closing and consolidating some schools, and adding more advanced and varied academic offerings to the campuses that remained.
The School Board narrowly rejected Project RISE, though, because it did not want to shut down schools. It said it would support adding new programs, on a slower timetable and as money allows.
Meanwhile, other choice operators are not coming to the U.S. 19 corridor, which isn’t booming alongside fast-growing Trinity and Wesley Chapel, the Leggs said. In fact, many of the district schools are below capacity, with enrollment slowly shrinking.
Yet the demand for something different is clear: Dayspring reports that its annual applications have tripled over the past eight years.
So the home-grown, A-graded charter with its all-local board, which first opened in 2000 and now has a contract through 2033, has plans to take up the slack.
“People are wanting something,” said John Legg, who expects to complete his doctorate in education this year. “We see people wanting a better tomorrow. … We’re not waiting for somebody to ride in from Land O’Lakes on a white horse to save us. We can’t wait.”
On its own, Dayspring could not have approached such an effort. Less than a year ago, its leaders told the School Board that, without some intervention or a stable source of revenue, the school could soon face financial crisis.
One piece of that puzzle was solved with the 2018 election, which saw Republican leadership retained in Tallahassee, where officials put more money into charter school capital needs.
Another piece came from west Pasco civic leaders, who have in recent months donated two properties to Dayspring for its expansion. First came the Regency Park civic association, with a building on 2.7 acres where the high school will operate. Next came the Jasmine Lake civic association, with a building on four acres where the new elementary will go.
Beyond that, Pasco County government allowed Dayspring to buy property inexpensively near its existing middle school to allow for the addition of permanent structures. And a church near the school’s primary site is leasing property to Dayspring “really cheap” for children to use as athletic fields.
“This is the community coming to us,” John Legg said.
Anne Donohoe of the Regency Park civic association said her group was thrilled to be able to back the cause.
“It was just like a match made in heaven,” she said.
The organization no longer could afford to maintain its property, she said, with volunteer participation dwindling and the cost of projects rising. Since the site belonged to the neighborhood, Donohoe said, members discussed giving it to Pasco County government, but were rebuffed.
Dayspring became an obvious choice.
“We figured, if they have more space, more property, they could open it up to more (students). It was a really easy decision,” Donohoe said. “It’s going to affect a whole lot of people. Kids we don’t even know. Kids who aren’t even born yet. … We’re really happy about it for this area.”
School district officials said they appreciated the effort.
“There’s definitely a need in west Pasco, for sure,” said School Board member Megan Harding, who attended Dayspring as a student and later taught there. “They’re a great homegrown charter school and I support them. They see the need and are acting on it.”
Harding applauded the idea of having the community brainstorm what it wants to see in its schools, rather than having officials mandate programs and plans from on high — a thinly veiled criticism of the district’s approach to the area. The administration’s first proposal for the schools, including shutting some down, caught parents and educators alike off guard.
Harding suggested the charter school and the district might collaborate, as “our kids deserve it.”
School Board chairwoman Alison Crumbley said she grew up in west Pasco and has seen its needs increase as the economic climate has declined.
“I applaud all initiatives that are out there wanting to help our students,” Crumbley said.
Such outside efforts should not remove the need for the school district to act, as well, she added. And listening to the community as Dayspring has been doing must be key, she said, noting an effort to revive Lacoochee Elementary in eastern Pasco is slowly beginning to generate results.
“We need a fix and we need it fast,” Crumbley said, making clear her displeasure with the lack of adequate performance and progress at many of the west-side schools.
“In my mind, nothing is off the table,” she added, saying making improvements will be a priority for the remainder of her time as board chair. “A fresh start is coming to mind.”
Superintendent Browning said via email he is attempting to work within the board’s constraints to breathe new life into west Pasco schools. He said he welcomed “any effort that will complement what we are already doing, and plan to do in the next few years.”
He took issue, though, with the notion that the district isn’t moving fast enough to serve west Pasco. He noted that taking action requires board support, adequate funding and deliberate planning, none of which comes easily.
“I think we have proven our commitment to expanding opportunities for students,” Browning said, listing the addition of programs such as Cambridge and AVID, and magnets such as Krinn Technical High, into west Pasco where the options didn’t exist before.
“Pasco County Schools is making strides toward closing the opportunity gap across the district, including in west Pasco, and we are not finished,” he said.
Dayspring has fewer hurdles to overcome.
As a charter school, it does not have to meet many of the same bureaucratic rules that district schools must follow. And because its contract with the district was written so long ago, John Legg said, it does not have the same facility requirements as even some other charters.
It is not tied to a specific site, meaning Dayspring can operate in any location that meets state safety rules. And so long as it retains its high-performing status from the state, it can expand its enrollment once each year up to its built capacity, making the donated buildings a boon to its growth.
In studying for his doctorate, Legg has looked at many models of education. He’s focused on small schools, with attention paid to what he calls the six C’s. Those include content, collaboration, customization, creativity, character and community.
Dayspring’s “Operation Hope,” he said, aims to build from there, creating another page in the portfolio of schools available in west Pasco.
“We are the community, and we have to do something,” Suzanne Legg said. “If we don’t, shame on us.”
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected]