Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

Hillsborough school officials say charters could help ease impact of enrollment boom

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school officials said Tuesday that they are willing to enlist an unlikely ally — charter schools — as they tackle a looming financial crunch brought on by growth in the coming years.

With the district facing at least $1 billion in construction needs on top of close to another $1 billion in debt, School Board chairwoman Cindy Stuart said, "I think this is an amazing opportunity for us to, as much as I don't want to say it out loud, partner with charters."

Board member Melissa Snively agreed: "We absolutely are going to need charter schools as a choice for our students and a way to help with our capacity issues."

Their statements followed a half-dozen other ideas, including portable classrooms, double sessions, leasing instead of building new schools and fashioning new high schools that might not offer a full menu of sports and clubs.

It's simple math, according to a new report from the Tindale Oliver consulting firm: New housing is quickly populating the once-rural pastures of south Hillsborough in particular, with forecasts for 10,000 new permits each year through 2032.

Kids in the new homes will fill as many as 38 schools. And while there are empty seats in existing schools, they're located largely in older neighborhoods in the urban core and the northwest.

In almost any scenario, the district will have to go even deeper into debt if it's to build enough to meet demand. Hence the need for stopgap measures, including friendly relations with the charter sector.

Charter schools use state tax dollars but are operated independently, often by for-profit companies like Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA. That company manages two popular south Hillsborough schools: Winthrop, with a long wait list, and SouthShore Academy, which had 754 students soon after opening in 2016.

Warming up to charter schools isn't new for the current board and administration. That posture began two years ago, when superintendent Jeff Eakins replaced MaryEllen Elia, who had taken a hard line with charters. Almost immediately, administrators settled a dispute with a longtime charter adversary and described a posture of collaborating with the providers on issues such as where they would locate.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, wasn't happy to hear the board members' statements Tuesday.

"I guess I understand where people have to leave that door open for legitimate financial reasons," she said.

"However, what really ought to be happening is that our publicly elected School Board ought to be standing up and fighting for traditional public schools to get the appropriate funding. If we believe that our public schools provide the best possible education, and meet the highest accountability standards, why on earth would we simply say we just can't do anything to have enough space?"

District leaders, who also are meeting with legislators to discuss funding issues, made it clear that they must explore every reasonable alternative.

It will take three years to raise enough money to build a new high school to relieve overcrowding at schools such as Lennard and East Bay, which have or are getting classroom additions, chief operating officer Chris Farkas told the board.

A high school costs $66 million to build. The Tindale Oliver forecast calls for at least six.

The board was evenly divided on the question of whether the time is right to push a sales tax hike, as has happened in other counties. Board member Susan Valdes suggested the board meet with the County Commission, the body that could raise impact fees imposed on developers, and with city officials.

The members also agreed to discuss their growth needs at another workshop.

Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.

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