TAMPA — Already nearly $1 billion in debt and stammering over what time to start school days, the Hillsborough County School District faces more upheaval from a population boom that promises to further strain its finances and test its political will for the next 15 years.
An average of 10,000 new homes will be permitted each year in that time, mostly in southeastern Hillsborough, requiring 23 to 38 new schools and frequent changes in attendance zone boundaries, according to a report by the Tindale Oliver consulting firm.
The district has a multitude of options, but all will cost at least $1 billion. And no scenario — except perhaps a sales tax hike — comes without even more debt.
A School Board workshop is scheduled at 1 p.m. today to discuss the $97,000 study, and the issues it raises — including how to change attendance boundaries to fill schools that have empty seats.
"If you can't get revenue overnight, then you'd better take advantage of every single place you have in your school that currently is available," superintendent Jeff Eakins told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last week.
Building the minimum number of schools without getting the county to impose higher developer fees would leave the district $429 million short of what it needs. Even if fees rose, there would be a shortfall of at least $106 million, the consultant's report said.
The projections for growth, and all it entails, come as the district has been absorbing widespread outrage over Eakins' proposal to change school start times in August. The superintendent said Monday he planned to seek tentative approval for his plan on April 25 and hold off implementation until the 2018-19 school year. But his initial strategy of portraying the time changes as entirely beneficial struck many as a pretense that eroded public trust.
Officials are bracing for even more emotion when the time comes to adjust school attendance boundaries, a process that in Pasco County has resulted recently in legal action by parent groups. "People are very passionate about their schools, especially high schools," said Chris Farkas, the Hillsborough district's chief operating officer.
This isn't the first time Hillsborough has run into growing pains. The consultant's report said that from 1999 to 2009, the district added an average of five new schools per year, a pace that slowed when the recession hit. The new 15-year projection foresees a longer but less torrid period of growth: an average of 2.5 schools being built each year, on top of the 216 schools Hillsborough currently operates.
The consultants based their projections on growth trends and the popularity of charter schools, which use tax dollars but are run independently of the district. Their best guess is that charter enrollment will continue to grow by its current rate of 1,350 students a year.
To be sure, key factors are hard to predict. The further into the future, the less reliable the forecasts become. District officials were surprised when the consultants said they anticipate a building boom in the rural Plant City area.
Another unknown is the level of taxes the state will allow districts to assess homeowners, which is a main source of money for school construction and maintenance.
Half the district's capital funds now pay debt service for schools built during the last boom, which began in the late 1990s. "We had about a 10-year period by which we built like 75 schools, and they're all aging out at the exact same time," Eakins said.
That's one reason why so many schools — 176, according to an informal survey by the teachers union in September — have problems with their air conditioners. "The only thing that changed between the fall and right now is, it's gotten cooler," Farkas said.
The report describes a $914 million backlog in maintenance, contributing to $2.5 billion in maintenance and renovation expenses between now and 2032. It estimates a shortfall of $1.2 billion in maintenance funds, similar to the projected shortage in construction money.
The district could push for a half-cent sales tax, as some communities are doing, to cure many of these deficits.
But Eakins said he does not feel comfortable asking the public for more money. It was just two years ago when leaders discovered the prior administration had spent down $200 million in reserves.
"We're in a position of regaining trust right now in our community," he said. He also wants to see more progress in reaching ambitious goals such as a 90 percent high school graduation rate.
Since the reserve fund revelation, Eakins has taken steps to rein in costs. He eliminated peer evaluators, a central component of the teaching reform experiment that involved the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He transferred more than 150 other employees to get nonteaching specialists into the classrooms.
Critics say the upper ranks of his bureaucracy have not diminished. The number of employees with six-figure salaries has gone up, not down, since Eakins took over.
But Eakins insists he has made the system more nimble and responsive by phasing out 25 to 30 mid-level administrative jobs. He did so through attrition, he said, laying off only 10 people in a workforce of about 26,000.
What the public sees, however, are changes that affect their family routines.
Starting in August, middle and high school students will no longer get bus rides within 2 miles of school — which is already the case in the rest of the state, Eakins pointed out.
Redrawing boundaries promises to be even more problematic. Changes the district rolled out this year, to take effect in 2018, already have phone lines buzzing. A plan to fold Cahoon Elementary into a neighborhood school serving prekindergarten to eighth grade drew complaints from families who value Cahoon's magnet program.
Opposition also has come from New Tampa homeowners over a plan to move some students from A-rated Pride Elementary to Hunter's Green Elementary, now a C school. Homeowners in Cory Lake Isles, where some houses sell for millions of dollars, fear their values will suffer.
Elsewhere, the district continues to operate schools with empty seats.
At last count Maniscalco, Morgan Woods and Clair Mel elementary schools were a third empty. Town & Country Elementary, with 400 students, was at 55 percent capacity.
Monroe and McLane middle schools were more than half empty. And there was room for more than 600 additional students at Chamberlain High.
"How do we make schools that have those empty seats in the urban areas the very best schools we can make them?" Eakins asked. In the past, the solution was to open magnet programs and draw the suburban students into the city.
But now growth is happening in the outer suburbs, making that solution less practical. "We have grown outward and sprawled," Eakins said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or [email protected]