Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Education

Boundary changes affecting more than a dozen Hillsborough schools come to a vote on Tuesday

TAMPA —After months of Facebook chatter and petition drives, parents and homeowners will get one more chance on Tuesday to try and talk politicians out of rezoning their children's schools.

The Hillsborough County School Board plans to take up a complicated boundary plan at its 3 p.m. meeting. In all, it affects more than a dozen schools in affluent New Tampa and working-class North Tampa.

The end result would include a combined pre-K through eighth grade school on the north Tampa grounds of Cahoon Elementary and Van Buren Middle.

The New Tampa schools — Clark, Pride, Hunter's Green and Heritage — would serve the same grades as before.

But the neighborhoods would change and the school district would stop busing children from North Tampa into the New Tampa schools.

Issues at stake include diversity and property values, the loss of a magnet program at Cahoon and the uncertainty to safety that comes with mixing children as young as 3 with students 13 and older at the planned Cahoon/Van Buren school.

The changes don't take effect until 2018, and the amended proposal includes some concessions for families who don't want to change schools.

If a student is now in third grade, for example, he or she can be "grandfathered" into his or her existing school for fifth grade, under some circumstances.

There also will be some leeway in the busing system, which is not supposed to cover children within two miles of their schools.

Here are the high points of the boundary changes, which can be seen in detail in maps on the district website.

• In New Tampa's Cory Lake Isles, students will move from Pride to Hunter's Green Elementary School. That's the source of some of the harshest complaints, with parents appearing at the last several School Board meetings to complain that friendships will be broken up and property values could suffer, as Hunter's Green has a C grade from the state while Pride has an A.

To counter the criticism, Hunter's Green parents have spoken in defense of their school and the district plan.

"Change is emotional, especially when our children are involved," Jamie Priest, president of the Hunter's Green PTA, told the School Board on May 2.

But busing has been hard on both those who ride the buses and those whose classes are disrupted when the children arrive late, she said.

• Also in New Tampa, some students will be moved from Heritage Elementary to Pride.

• A smaller neighborhood near the intersection of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Interstate-75 will be transferred from Hunter's Green to Clark Elementary.

• In North Tampa, some 10 miles away, hundreds of children who had been bused to Hunter's Green and Clark will instead attend neighborhood elementary schools Shaw and Witter.

• Some university area students will move from the MOSI partnership school to Pizzo Elementary. There also will be moves from MOSI to Mort, from Mort to Pizzo and from MOSI to Shaw.

• There will be some movements in the middle schools too.

A neighborhood surrounded on three sides by the Hillsborough River will move from Van Buren to Sligh. A smaller neighborhood, slightly north, will move from Greco to the Cahoon/Van Buren combination school. And, north of Bouganvillea Avenue near Copeland Park, some students will move from Van Buren to Adams Middle School.

The district website also includes a lengthy question-and-answer sheet about the planned Cahoon/Van Buren merger that addresses concerns about teaching jobs, safety, and the budget issues that led to the reorganization.

District officials have explained the rationale as follows: Without ending the busing into New Tampa, population growth would make it necessary to build a new school, at a cost of roughly $25 million.

So the district saves on that cost. It also saves on busing by ending the animal sciences magnet program at Cahoon. By spreading the school population more logically among North Tampa's elementary schools, it can save even more money on transportation.

In addition, the district can make use of hundreds of seats at Van Buren, a D-rated school that is more than half empty.

The downside: Schools in North Tampa could become racially segregated. Cahoon, with the existing magnet program, is now 51 percent black while Van Buren is 61 percent black. Hunter's Green is 29 percent black while Clark is 19 percent black.

The new arrangement will likely result in a mostly black preK-8 school, and whiter populations at Clark and Hunter's Green.

The other downside: Parents at Cahoon say the community will lose a treasured resource in the magnet school.

Omar Salem, a father of two, launched a "Save Cahoon" campaign and tried to mobilize teachers and parents to apply political pressure and keep the magnet school intact.

But it's been a losing battle, he said. The principal was reassigned to a school in Brandon, teachers are looking for other options and parents are making the rounds of charter schools and other magnets.

Salem's two children will likely attend either Lutz Preparatory, a charter school; or Muller Elementary in the coming year.

"I've pretty much given up," he said. "The magnet dream is over with."

The district says it is creating new choice enrollment times to accommodate students affected by the changes.

If anything, Superintendent Jeff Eakins said recently, the new system will offer more choices, and closer to home, to North Tampa families who have had to contend with busing.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol

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