BROOKSVILLE — When budgets tighten, consumers tend to put off major purchases and hunker down for better times. School officials appear likely to do the same with the new K-8 planned for northwest Hernando County. The school planned for U.S. 19 north of Weeki Wachee is slated to open in August 2011. It has already been pushed back a year.
But at least three School Board members now say it’s probably wise to postpone construction of the roughly $33 million school for another year to give the district’s shaky budget more time to recover from at least two straight years of cuts.
Though the school will be built with capital dollars that are already available, the district would save the money needed to operate it, the members say.
Board members James Yant, Sandra Nicholson and Pat Fagan also point out that the district’s student enrollment is projected to decrease for the second straight year.
“I just think right now it might be best to put (construction) off a bit and wait to see where our student population goes,” Nicholson said. “I’m concerned about building a new school knowing the economic conditions are still going to be bad for the next two years, and knowing we’re going to be losing students, not gaining,” Fagan said.
That may be, but the new K-8 — with a projected capacity of about 1,300 students — would bring needed relief to overcrowded schools throughout the district.
Keeping the opening date where it is would avoid the need to go through the complicated and typically controversial rezoning process two times in the next two years, said Jim Knight, director of student services.
State law requires the district to provide enough space for students, or a so-called level of service. The district must maintain a five-year plan that marries available capital dollars with student enrollment projections to ensure that classrooms are built and ready when they’re needed.
By the fifth year of the plan, no individual school can exceed capacity — and portable classrooms don’t count, Amber Wheeler, the district’s manager of planning and growth management, said Tuesday.
The K-8 is set to open in year four of the district’s current five-year plan, which extends to the 2012-13 school year. The opening date could be pushed back to the fifth year and the district could still meet capacity requirements, Wheeler said.
But the plan had been to do one major rezoning based on the 2011 opening date, Knight said. The school’s opening would create a ripple effect throughout the district, helping not just to ease overcrowding at Explorer K-8, Fox Chapel Middle and Spring Hill Elementary — three of the district’s most overcrowded schools — but also would enable officials to get students out of portables at Brooksville, Moton, Suncoast, Westside, Pine Grove and Deltona elementary schools as well as Powell Middle, Knight said. Pine Grove and Deltona, for example, have more than 600 and 400 students in portables, respectively.
If the opening date is pushed back, the district will have to do an “emergency rezoning” next year for Explorer, Fox Chapel and Spring Hill, and then another rezoning once the new K-8 opens, Knight said.
“My goal is to not move children twice,” he said.
Updated enrollment projections will come from the state this summer, and if the School Board wants to change the K-8 opening date it will have to formally vote by the early fall to amend the five-year plan. The sooner the board makes the decision official, the better, Knight said.
Superintendent Wayne Alexander said he doesn’t see any major obstacles to pushing back the opening date.
Facilities director Bo Bavota said he will likely recommend the district move forward with site work and perhaps the underground utilities for the new school, which will be built adjacent to a new high school under construction and set to open in August 2010.
There is another option the board could consider to save money and ease overcrowding at elementary schools, Bavota said: build the first two levels of the three-story school that will house the elementary grades and finish the third story, where the middle school grades will be housed, at a later date. Construction of the gym could also be postponed.
Those strategies could save as much as $11 million plus the money needed to operate the middle school portion, Bavota said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.