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Enrollment slump brings school construction to a halt in Hillsborough County

TAMPA — Don't look for new school construction anytime soon in Hillsborough County.

Enrollment is projected to drop again this fall, and five new schools opening in August will be the district's last until at least the fall of 2013, officials said Tuesday.

That lull marks the end of a growth-fueled binge that saw 70 schools built in a dozen years.

"Up until this past school year, we were growing anywhere between 3,000 and 7,000 kids per year," said Cindy Wood, director of planning and related services. "This is uncharted ground for us."

This fall the district expects an enrollment of 188,228 students, down 1,360 from last year and the third straight year of decline.

Overcrowding in some areas means the five schools opening this fall — Strawberry Crest High and Bailey Elementary in eastern Hillsborough County; Stowers Elementary and Barrington Middle to the south; and Steinbrenner High in the northwest — will be put to good use.

But for the next five years, the emphasis will be on upkeep and repair, chief facilities officer Cathy Valdes said Tuesday at a School Board workshop on the district's facilities plan.

Most of the district's capital budget will go toward $241.4 million in major maintenance projects across its 296 schools and other buildings, she said.

The district has also budgeted $52.1 million toward building an elementary school in Tampa Heights by the fall of 2013, and a middle school in south Hillsborough. But it will need at least $199.7 million more to finish those projects and 20 major renovations, including overhauls for Gaither and Bloomingdale high schools, Valdes said.

Enrollment, and the state funding that goes with it, is projected to begin creeping up in the fall of 2010. But the district is taking that with a grain of salt.

"They do so much with historical data, and you've got to throw all that out," Valdes said, referring to the state's methodology. "The current year is all you can count on, and you can only count on it as long as the state funds you."

The enrollment picture has been even grimmer in Pinellas County, which has closed eight elementary and three middle schools over the last two years.

Hillsborough board members said they have been shocked at declines in a county where, for years, everything was headed up.

"There are a lot of people who are moving out of their houses and moving into less expensive parts of town," said member April Griffin, referring to foreclosures and the economic downturn. "I haven't seen that for years, that many people moving out of Tampa."

Enrollment slump brings school construction to a halt in Hillsborough County 07/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 21, 2009 9:17pm]
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