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After closing, Sunset School campus could become offices - or another school

When Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie last month announced his decision to close a Fort Lauderdale school for special-needs students, parents and school staff were teary-eyed and angry. But Runcie insisted that the shutdown — which takes effect next school year — was done with students’ best interests in mind, and would provide them a more-complete, robust education.

Still unanswered , though, is what Broward intends to do with the centrally located Sunset School campus. Runcie has repeatedly dismissed rumors that the district intends to use the facility as office space, but he’s not ruling it out as a possibility, among other options — including an early childhood center or a vocational school.

“We actually don’t have a plan,” said Runcie, adding that the district will be examining that issue over the next several months.

Many students and parents have questioned whether the school really needs to be closed. Sunset behavior specialist Jillian Haring says bringing in office cubicles would be “an incredible waste of resources” given how much Broward spent to make the building kid-friendly, with new basketball courts installed only a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless, finding locations for employees has become a big issue because the school district, in a cost-cutting move, is ending its lease at the Sawgrass Technology Park administrative offices. The move should save nearly $2 million a year but requires the relocation of more than 500 employees from 18 departments by the end of 2013.

School Board members on Tuesday are set to approve a relocation plan for those employees, and Sunset is not included as a new home for them, Runcie said.

But internal district documents show administrators have considered the office space possibility. A Feb. 15 e-mail written by district administrator Kathrine Francis (who oversees Broward’s special-needs programs and was a point person in Sunset’s closure) refers to a proposal to use Sunset as an “administrative site.”

“Should the current proposal be approved, my Division staff will move into the facility,” Francis wrote to two other district leaders.

A March 12 space-planning analysis performed for the district by Raymond C. Southern Consulting included Sunset as one of 14 possible placement sites for the Sawgrass employees. Though the report cautions that Sunset’s new use is “still undetermined,” it goes on to identify particular school district departments that could move to Sunset, such as 72 employees from “Psychological Services,” and 28 employees from “Exceptional Student Education.”

For Sunset parent Ava Greaves, the district’s office space discussions only cemented her belief that the school’s closure is all wrong.

“That is selfish,” said Greaves, whose daughter attends Sunset. “They’re only thinking about themselves, they’re not thinking about the kids.”

Greaves’ daughter is diagnosed with a psychological disorder, as are many students at Sunset — the school specializes in students with emotional and behavioral problems. Parents and staff at Sunset argue that the students’ condition makes it especially hard for them to adjust to a new school. Broward’s forced closure, they warn, will have damaging, disruptive consequences.

Runcie argues the closure, and corresponding reassignment of students to two other special-needs schools, is driven by a desire “to actually benefit students.” For example, Sunset’s low enrollment means students in different grades are clustered in the same classroom. By consolidating three schools to two, Runcie said students will be placed in more grade-specific classes, and will benefit from expanded programming.

Runcie said he had not seen the consultant’s report that included Sunset as a possible office space location, but he stressed that neither the report nor Francis’ “administrative site” e-mail signaled that Sunset’s future purpose has been determined.

“There was never any official approved plan to do that,” Runcie said.