TAMPA — Picture Wharton High School with 400 fewer students, or Jefferson High with 200 fewer. What if only two-thirds of the seats were filled at South Tampa's Monroe Middle School?
This is what the state Department of Education is predicting. Based largely on a statewide rush toward charter schools, the department expects the Hillsborough County district to lose 6,500 students from its mainstream schools over the next five years.
Reviewing the numbers at a recent School Board workshop, chief facilities officer Cathy Valdes said, "we were a little bit dismayed."
And they're skeptical.
Valdes said the state is factoring in the growth in charters, greater ease of getting scholarships for disabled students and a trend toward more online learning. She questioned why it would matter if students take courses online. "They are going to be taking those in schools, mostly."
But that's just a side issue, she said. "Truthfully, they're mostly putting their eggs in the basket of charters."
• • •
Charters, which use state funding but operate outside the confines of county school districts, are the darlings of education reformers in search of alternatives to troubled government-run schools.
Statewide charter school enrollment climbed over the last decade from 16,000 to more than 135,000, according to state statistics.
But while there's no doubt the concept is gaining popularity, Hillsborough officials wonder whether the state numbers crunchers are allowing for differences between communities.
"Our data doesn't show the kind of increases in charter schools that we have seen in other districts," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said. "When charter schools have come in and requested (permission to serve) a certain number of students, they often don't make that number."
While the landscape is changing rapidly, this is what you see when you look at the school directory on the Education Department website:
Miami-Dade County had 91 charter schools last year with more than 35,000 students. Broward had 67 with 23,000 students.
The Hillsborough district, which is more than half the size of Miami-Dade's and almost as big as Broward's, had 29 charter schools with 6,200 students.
That said, charter schools are just one factor in the state calculations, and perhaps not even the most important one.
Amy Baker, the state's chief economist, said legislative input into the estimating process reflected new laws that create more opportunities for online learning. "We're saying there are going to be more students availing themselves of those options," she said.
• • •
School enrollment numbers, among other things, determine how much construction money districts can expect from the state. This year the Legislature did not give public schools money from the utility-supported Public Education Capital Outlay fund. Instead, the funds were awarded to charter schools and universities.
"The PECO decision came from the Legislature," said Education Department spokeswoman Cheryl Etters when asked if her department was pursuing a pro-charter agenda.
Hillsborough does not need much in the way of new schools; The district built plenty during the residential construction boom of recent decades.
But the district does have a long list of renovation projects that are unfunded, including three — at Temple Terrace Elementary, Wilson Middle and Progress Village — that were scheduled for this year, but will have to be put on hold.
Needs at those schools could include everything from kitchen upgrades, heating and air-conditioning repairs, and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Valdes said.
It also will be hard to buy enough school buses, Valdes said, which means the district might have to spend more money on parts for the old buses.
Hearing her explanation, several board members wanted to refute what they say is flawed logic on the part of the state. "We've had state population projections before that have been wildly out there," said member Candy Olson, who called this one delusional.
Others, concerned about aggressive marketing from charters and online programs, suggested the district respond with some self-promotion of its own.
"We've got to counter with all the choices that we have," said chairman Doretha Edgecomb. "As a district, we have to keep to the forefront all the wonderful choices that we have available to our students."
An earlier version of this article had an incorrect number of charter students in Miami-Dade County. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or email@example.com.