TAMPA — Hillsborough schools have a problem.
About 35,000 classroom seats are sitting empty across the county, and the children who can fill them are in other schools.
So the district is paying for hundreds of portable classrooms to relieve crowding at campuses that have more students than they can hold. That simply won't fly forever.
"We're going to have to move kids to seats now, instead of moving seats to kids," Bill Person, Hillsborough's general director for student placement, recently told a community task force on class-size issues.
Now that enrollment growth has skidded to a halt and class sizes are capped, school officials say a balancing act is in order. They want to eliminate portables. And the state isn't going to pay for construction while so many seats go unused.
The search for solutions begins this year as the district redraws boundaries for at least seven high schools. This student shuffle revolves around the opening of two high schools next fall: one in Lutz, the other in eastern Hillsborough.
The approach used could set the stage for a future review of attendance zones in the rest of the county. The district is getting outside help with the process, often criticized as political and unfair.
This time, the first run will be blind. No maps. No way to favor any neighborhood over another.
Computer models will analyze the tradeoffs between transportation costs and the most efficient use of classroom seats under different boundaries. School officials will get to see multiple scenarios, and review what each would mean for school diversity.
"You will look at the analytic consequences of different solutions without knowing whose ox is getting gored," said Bill Lazarus, chief executive officer and president of SeerAnalytics, the firm hired to crunch the student data. "That allows us to have a very principled approach to these very difficult and complex decisions."
Maps, of course, will eventually enter into the discussion. So will factors traditionally considered in drawing school boundaries, such as major roads and other natural dividing lines and neighborhood borders.
School officials also will listen to the affected communities.
"The public is wanting to see — and we're wanting to see — is this a better way of doing business?" School Board member Doretha Edgecomb said. "I'm hoping it's going to give more transparency."
For now, the discussion centers on two new high schools, Steinbrenner in Lutz and a yet-unnamed campus in the Dover area. Their boundaries could affect a long list of nearby schools. In the north county, Sickles, Gaither, Leto, Alonso, Freedom and Chamberlain could see changes. In the east, Durant, Plant City and Armwood are likely to be affected.
Once the district finishes this project, probably in late January, administrators can begin to look at the rest of the county. There are no plans for major boundary changes next year, beyond new school openings.
The $142,000 consultant contract includes the call for "an initial 'big picture' of the opportunity for long-range planning." The scope remains undefined. For starters, the consultants will examine the locations of about 500 portables being used as classrooms.
Such modeling, coupled with detailed student data, could offer an analysis of school zones unlike any ever conducted. The consultants can review everything from where students live to their ethnicity and poverty levels. Children's identities remain anonymous.
While district officials have not identified any specific schools for future changes, School Board chairwoman Jennifer Faliero has pointed to South Tampa's high schools as an obvious concern.
Popular Plant High, an affluent school long seen as a crown jewel among public schools, is severely crowded. It is surrounded by less-advantaged high schools — all with empty seats.
Already, the very mention of touching Plant's boundaries has sounded alarms in the community.
School officials stress that no changes will be made for next year. If they look at Plant's boundaries in the future, the goal is to have standards in place that treat Plant just like any other school.
"In the past, we've had communities that have felt that the school district was partial to affluent communities," said Person, who oversees student placement. "We want a process that treats everyone fairly and treats everyone the same."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.