Sunday, May 20, 2018
Education

Pasco board plans new schools to reduce crowding

With enrollment surging, Pasco County school officials are talking about building schools for the first time in four years.

District planners project a 1,350-student increase for the coming year, on top of similar growth in this past year. Several schools are bursting at the seams.

They're the usual ones, in Wesley Chapel and along State Road 54.

Oakstead Elementary School is expecting 50 percent more children than it is built to hold (about 400), with Connerton and Seven Oaks elementary schools not far behind. John Long Middle School could have close to 350 students above its capacity, with nearby Weightman Middle School about 150 kids over.

Wiregrass Ranch High School is on target to remain the county's largest school, holding close to 700 teens more than it has permanent space for — even after a recent rezoning that was supposed to ease the crowding.

So in addition to preparing for renovation projects, such as overhauling Shady Hills and Quail Hollow elementary schools, the Pasco County School Board is making plans to add to the inventory. On tap:

• Rebuilding Sanders Elementary School, which closed in 2010, the year the district opened its most recent new schools (Odessa Elementary, Connerton Elementary and Fivay High). Connerton took Sanders' students, and officials saw no need at the time to replace the aging school, which was mostly razed. Now it's targeted to return in August 2015, with the $22 million construction project to begin within a month.

"With the reopening of Sanders as a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) magnet, we anticipate major relief for Connerton and Oakstead," planning director Chris Williams told the School Board.

• Adding Elementary "W," in the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel, to begin classes in 2016. The $19.8 million school would relieve some, but not all, of the crowding at Seven Oaks, Sand Pine and Double Branch elementary schools.

• Adding 6-12 School "GGG," north and west of Wesley Chapel High, in 2017. The plan calls for this $85 million campus to house middle and high school students, easing the nearest campuses. It later could become a high school, and the district would build a new middle school nearby.

• Adding Elementary "B," a $19 million project in the proposed Bexley Ranch subdivision just north of State Road 54 near Ballantrae. It also would open in 2017, also helping with congestion at Oakstead and surrounding campuses.

Earlier, district leaders discussed opening a new elementary school at a different central Pasco site first. But the developers of Bexley Ranch are ramping up plans more quickly for up to 1,500 residences, assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said.

Other projects are further off, such as a K-8 school in a proposed Starkey Ranch subdivision.

"Our work is in the planning stages," construction director John Petrashek said. "The visible part is where everybody thinks the work begins. But the bulk of the work — two years of planning before that — is already under way."

The School Board recently approved several contracts for architectural work, construction management, land surveying and other related services.

If there's a concern, it's that the district's many construction, maintenance and other capital needs exceed its anticipated revenue over the coming decade. The school system has about $1 billion in needs and anticipated funding of about $730 million.

That gap will require the district to set its priorities, particularly as the income stream from taxes and fees declines in the later years, Gadd said.

Board members made clear that they want to make all needed improvements to keep the schools up to date for students and educators. They noted that the county's population increases won't go unnoticed by other school providers.

"As we continue to grow, we're going to become more of a magnet for charter schools," board member Cynthia Armstrong said.

The district's goal, superintendent Kurt Browning said, is to make the district the most attractive option.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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