Saturday, April 21, 2018
Education

Hernando confronts new problem: too much space in some schools

BROOKSVILLE — Pine Grove Elementary School is not the anthill of activity it was just a few years ago.

Several hundred fewer students walk through its doors each day. The 26 portables that dot the campus are now primarily reserved for storage. Some sit empty. Classrooms in the main part of the school have been repurposed for computer testing; others have been transformed into science labs. The walkways are less crowded. The atmosphere is less chaotic.

At 587 students this school year, the school is running slightly above 34 percent of its capacity, making it the most underutilized school in the district. Even if you don't count the space in the portable classrooms, it's operating at about half capacity.

"We had almost double everything we have now — double the number of teachers, double the number of kids, double the paraprofessionals," said principal Earl Deen.

Once among the most overcrowded schools in Hernando County, it's now one of several schools experiencing a relatively new phenomenon for a district long accustomed to rapid growth: excess capacity.

The extra space has resulted from a combination of factors: the construction of more schools, the expansion of others and the economic downturn of recent years, which has caused at least some families to leave the county.

Hernando's elementary schools, including the space in portables still on campuses, are hovering about 37 percent below maximum capacity, giving them more unused space than other schools.

The K-8 schools fall 13 percent below capacity, the middle schools 34 percent below, the high schools 26 percent under.

But that's not the complete picture.

When the district was building and expanding, it did so with the idea of eliminating portables.

"The object of that was to put kids in brick and mortar and get them out of portables," said Roland "Bo" Bavota, the district's facilities director.

Take out portables, and the district's capacity drops considerably.

The elementary schools would have 17 percent excess capacity, the K-8 schools would drop to 6 percent, the middle schools to 29 and the high schools to 19 percent.

The district hasn't been able to remove portables because of a state mandate preventing districts from getting rid of portables less than 20 years old, Bavota said. The district has called that unfair and is appealing that. Bavota said the district will likely be able to remove them soon.

While there is generally extra space in the district, it's not spread evenly.

With portables excluded, Pine Grove is at 52 percent capacity, and Eastside Elementary is at 61 percent. Fox Chapel Middle is at 64 percent, and West Hernando is at 65 percent. Central High is at 54 percent.

On the other end of the spectrum, Chocachatti and Brooksville elementary schools would be overcapacity — at 113 percent and 101 percent, respectively. Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics would be at 102 percent.

Nature Coast Technical High School, which has no portables, is now at 105 percent capacity.

School district officials are assembling a team to look at the district's resources and capacities and to make recommendations for the future, said superintendent Lori Romano.

Bavota will lead the team.

He said everything is on the table, including a potential partial or full redistricting, which would involve moving the boundaries for schools' zones.

"We're going to look at all of that to see what makes sense," he said. "That's what you would do in business."

The Hernando district has been shrinking in recent years, with enrollment dropping each of the past four years. But it's expected to turn around. Projections show an increase of nearly 3,300 students in the next 10 years.

Many say they like the extra space, for obvious reasons.

"It was more hectic," Deen said. "You used to go out on the campus, and someone was moving somewhere."

The impact of empty schools is more fiscal then academic, Bavota said.

"When you start looking at cost per student, you're going to be higher," he said.

While teacher allocations shift with student levels, there's a number of factors that do not change — the need to air condition and maintain empty rooms, for example. Schools that have shrunk in size also may still have oversized core facilities, such as cafeterias and multipurpose rooms.

"That's a concern," Bavota said.

Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

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