TAMPA — Hillsborough school officials don't expect to build any schools for at least three years, a construction break without precedent since the 1960s.
The announcement Tuesday does not affect the eight schools now in the works, which will open over the next two years. The construction hiatus is set to begin in 2010-11.
That would be the first year since 1994 that Hillsborough didn't open a new school.
"It's unthinkable that we're not having to build schools to keep up with growth anymore," School Board Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero said. "It was something I never expected to see in my tenure on the board."
Several years ago, Hillsborough couldn't build schools fast enough. In the burgeoning suburbs, classrooms were overflowing as soon as new campuses opened. The district raced to build 70 schools in a dozen years.
But in the last few years, enrollment has flat-lined, a phenomenon officials tie to rising costs and a declining economy. And no one knows what to expect in the future.
"It's very new territory," said Cathy Valdes, Hillsborough's chief facilities officer. "It definitely is a change in the way we do business."
Pinellas has deeper troubles. It closed two elementary schools and a middle school this year to address declining enrollment. School officials say they may be forced to close more schools next year.
The district continues to build replacements for some older schools, but at a much slower pace than in the past.
Pasco County is growing and expects to open six new schools and one rebuilt campus over the next three years. Officials there see no reason to push back construction timetables.
In Hillsborough, school officials say the future may be rosier than current plans reflect. The district tailored its school construction schedule around projections that remain in dispute.
The state is telling Hillsborough to expect a net gain of 1,700 students over the next five years. School officials believe they could see 10 times that number.
As many as 16,500 students should arrive during those years, according to the projections of demographer Jim Hosler, a consultant to the school district who formerly worked for Hillsborough's planning commission.
Hosler said the state treated Hillsborough like large urban districts in South Florida, but it's different. Housing remains more affordable here, and he said several public works programs should spur employment. Plus, he sees an uptick in the number of babies being born.
"They're already here," he said, attributing to birthrates an additional 800 to 900 students each year. "It isn't like people are going to be moving out en masse."
The state and district projections aren't far apart for next year, which is expected to see virtually no growth and possibly an enrollment decline.
School officials say there is an upside to the slowdown: Hillsborough won't add to the $1.2-billion debt it amassed during the growth years. It should also help schools meet class-size limits.
But the district is feeling the pinch in other ways. Hillsborough no longer can afford to embark on $111-million in major renovations that had been planned at 11 schools.
There's not enough money to go around, Valdes said. She said the Legislature pulled as much as $23-million in tax revenues traditionally used for school construction to help pay for operating expenses.
Renovations still are slated for Chiaramonte, Lopez, Northwest, Trapnell and West Tampa elementary schools, as well as Wilson Middle.
Officials plan to build at least one elementary school and two middle schools between 2013-14 and 2017-18. Longer-term plans call for building 21 elementary schools in the decade beginning in 2018.
And the three-year break in new construction could be cut short if Hillsborough sees the growth it expects.
"This is all a plan," Valdes said. "Plans change."
Times staff writers Thomas C. Tobin and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.