NORTHDALE — Students returning to Gaither High School this week found a much different school than the one they left in June.
Over the summer, the front offices were renovated and a new main entrance constructed. The school's media center received new carpeting and lighting and the entire building is being repainted.
But the $21.2 million construction overhaul may be among the district's last — at least for a while.
The school system's policy is to renovate buildings every 20 to 25 years. But that depends on whether construction dollars, which come from the state, are available to keep plans on course.
Recent state cutbacks have put future plans at risk, said Cathy Valdes, the district's chief facilities officer.
"If funding doesn't resume, we will not be able to keep to a 20- to 25-year schedule," she said. "In fact, with the current level of funding we won't be doing any more renovations, which would be devastating."
Projects at several elementary and middle schools in Riverview, Temple Terrace, Carrollwood and Tampa scheduled to begin by 2013, pending funding, may not happen, Valdes said.
Projects already under way, including the one at Gaither, will move forward. It won't be finished until December 2012 and will call for students and faculty to make adjustments.
To accommodate the summer construction, for instance, Gaither's open house has been postponed until Sept. 1. Normally, it would have taken place a few days before school began.
Meanwhile at Armwood High School, students may have been surprised by what they didn't see on the first day of school.
Workers wrapped up a three-year $28 million renovation this summer. The Seffner school's gymnasium, media center, cafeteria and auditorium were all re-done, and workers have cleared out the construction equipment and supplies.
Thirty-four portables used to house Armwood classrooms on a rear parking lot during various phases of construction are gone, too.
With more than 200 schools, the Hillsborough County School District has dozens of construction projects under way at any given time. Massive renovations that include new roofs, ventilation systems and refinishing interior areas, are among the most expensive and time-consuming.
Armwood was built in 1983, and Gaither opened a year later.
Bloomingdale High School in Valrico and Chiaramonte Elementary School in Tampa's Gandy area are also getting their first complete overhauls this school year, Valdes said.
There have been smaller scale projects at Chiaramonte, built in 1955. Its $7.4 million renovation, expected to take 14 months, should be completed by the end of next summer.
Bloomingdale was built in 1989. Its $20 million of renovations began in the spring. The project is scheduled to be finished in December 2012.
In the meantime, students and teachers will shuffle to accommodate construction. At any given time, about a third of classrooms will be relocated to portables at Gaither and Bloomingdale: Gaither has 24 portables; Bloomingdale 23. When one area of the school is completed, teachers move back into their rooms and a new group transitions into the portables.
Valdes compared the construction projects to a woman going through childbirth.
"You make some sacrifices, but you have a beautiful baby at the end," she said.
At Gaither, the school was off-limits all summer, causing staff and enrichment camps to be relocated to Buchanan Middle School.
Principal Marie Whelan wasn't even allowed back into the building until Aug. 15, the same day dozens of teachers returned to begin preparing for the academic year. She said the end result, a virtually brand new school interior, is worth the temporary inconveniences.
"Things will look more current and more up-to-date," she said.
Dealing with the ongoing construction hasn't created too many headaches, Whelan said. The school started adjusting in January, when the portables arrived.
When the project is finally done, the school will have a new heating and air-conditioning system, as well as all new flooring, ceilings and roof. Many of the common areas will also be repainted or refurbished.
Throughout the year, certain hallways may be off-limits but the changes don't take long to sink in, Whelan said. "It's just the movement, the patterns of traffic."
Reach Tia Mitchell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.