SOUTH TAMPA — Maybe it's the winning teams. The strong alumni backing. The advanced placement curriculum, extracurricular activities and national ratings. Or maybe it's the brand name: Plant High School, alma mater to many of the most influential people who hail from the heart of South Tampa. Either way, people love Plant so much that it's packed, while desks at nearby schools remain empty. Earlier this month, School Board member Jennifer Faliero said the district may need to consider changing Plant's boundaries, something that hasn't happened to the school in almost two decades. "It's coming," she said.
Parents panicked. Calls started to pour into Plant, prompting principal Rob Nelson to issue a schoolwide automated call:
"Let me assure you that there are no current plans to redraw our boundaries," it said. "Next school year, Plant will have the same attendance boundaries that we have this year."
But what about the year after that?
District officials say something may have to be done.
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How did Plant end up with 20 percent more students than its stated capacity?
Like many things these days, the economy has played a role, says Bill Person, Hillsborough's general director of student placement. South Tampa parents no longer able to afford private school are increasingly sending their kids to Plant.
Officials typically see 80 kids each year leave private schools to go to Plant. In the past two years, that number has increased to 150.
Then there are the kids who go to Plant but don't live within the boundaries. Currently, 123 students are at Plant with special assignments, which can include hardships and medical reasons. Some are children of teachers.
And others sneak in.
To get into the school, some people use addresses within the Plant boundaries, even though they don't live there. Take a recent ad, placed on Craigslist:
I am trying to get my son into the Plant High school district. I would be willing to pay your utilities or cable bill for 3 months to be able to switch it into my name.…
School Board member Candy Olson says such cheating isn't tolerated.
"But you have to balance," Olson said. "Are you going to worry about curriculum? Or spend time chasing down kids?"
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Faliero knows well the sensitivities surrounding school boundaries. She was criticized in 2007 when she moved out of her east Hillsborough district after a divorce and into a condo on Davis Islands, then enrolled her kids in South Tampa schools, including Plant.
She apologized, moved back to Valrico and transferred her daughter to her neighborhood high school. Some parents still bring the move up when Faliero talks about Plant being overcrowded.
When boundaries are threatened, the whispers increase. Parents start looking around for cheaters.
But the situation is sticky, said Plant parent Yvette Chapman. Your kids might be friends with some of them.
But she also thinks about the parents who bought houses within the boundaries so their kids could go to Plant.
Victoria Blake is one of them. She moved from her larger house in Ballast Point to one in Bel Mar Shores. Her new house isn't as nice, and her property taxes are higher. But she's three blocks inside the Plant boundary.
Her oldest daughter just graduated from Berkeley Prep, a private school. If she had the money, she'd send her younger ones there, too. But Plant will have to do.
If only the school wasn't so crowded, Blake said. She wonders why people who still live in Ballast Point get special assignments to go to Plant.
Maybe the school wouldn't be so crowded, Blake said, if the district just stuck to its existing boundaries. The neighborhood school for Ballast Point is Robinson High.
It's at 85 percent capacity.
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District officials want parents to know they won't be changing Plant boundaries this year or next. And if boundaries change in 2010, seniors most likely wouldn't be affected.
The school district has hired an outside consultant, SeerAnalytics, to develop data-driven boundaries for two high schools opening in northwest Hillsborough and east county. The firm also will begin to help the district develop a universal, impartial model officials could use to change boundaries throughout the district.
They will crunch numbers using variables like transportation costs, staffing efficiency, and population diversity.
And even after all that, they may choose not to change the boundaries, Person said.
They'll look at Robinson, with its well-regarded International Baccalaureate program. Students from other schools already have chosen to enroll there, including kids from Plant. They'll also tighten their policies on special assignments, Person said.
"When you're overcrowded, you've got to stop putting kids in a school that don't live there," Person said. "We've got to find a solution to Plant."
Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.