Monday, September 24, 2018
Education

Report: Population growth will mean more debt and painful rezoning for Hillsborough schools

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]

Comments
USF assistant VP rides AHN wave of support to success

USF assistant VP rides AHN wave of support to success

Editor’s note: Academy of the Holy Names junior Tress Jacobs spent the summer of 2018 shadowing Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper. To conclude the experience, she interviewed Academy alumnus Kim Wilmath Hill and filed this report.By Tres...
Published: 09/23/18
How do you explain active shooters to a first-grader? For educators, school safety is a ‘work in progress.’

How do you explain active shooters to a first-grader? For educators, school safety is a ‘work in progress.’

Active assailant. Run-hide-fight. Barricade the classroom. The language of preventing a shooting like the one this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is often filled with terms that can stir up fear in students, often out of necessity.But f...
Published: 09/22/18

Two acclaimed authors to speak about water at USF St. Petersburg

Pulitzer Prize winner and University of Florida professor Jack Davis thinks people need to humble themselves more toward water."The water doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the water," he said. "Without water, humanity would not exist, life would not...
Published: 09/21/18
Updated: 09/22/18
Hillsborough school district releases referendum wish list

Hillsborough school district releases referendum wish list

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District on Friday released a long-awaited, school-by-school list of 1,785 projects to be funded by a proposed half-cent sales tax hike.The list, now on the district website, includes playgrounds for Anderson El...
Published: 09/21/18
Pinellas education news: college fairs, lectures and more

Pinellas education news: college fairs, lectures and more

Students, parents invited to three upcoming college and career fairsThree events are scheduled over the next two weeks that are designed to help students plan their next steps after leaving the Pinellas County school system. The University of South F...
Published: 09/21/18
Football player, band member, advanced student, girl: Pasco eighth-grader does it all well

Football player, band member, advanced student, girl: Pasco eighth-grader does it all well

TRINITY — Julie Michael stood in the metal bleachers, flute poised at her lips, ready to play the national anthem with the Seven Springs Middle School advanced band.As the band segued into the school fight song, the eighth-grader continued per...
Published: 09/20/18
Updated: 09/23/18
Romano: We need education solutions not slogans from DeSantis, Gillum

Romano: We need education solutions not slogans from DeSantis, Gillum

And 200,000 third-graders just rolled their eyes.I swear, even they can see through the education proposals offered by gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum this week.Let’s see, the Republican wants more privatization. And the Democ...
Published: 09/20/18

Local rapper encourages elementary students to attend school every day(w/video)

Local rapper Corey Thornton performs original songs on Wednesday Sept. 18, 2019 about the importance of school attendance at Walsingham Elementary School during a school wide assembly. During Attendance Awareness Month, Pinellas County Schools and th...
Published: 09/19/18
Updated: 09/20/18
USF faces a reality as it prepares to consolidate: This is going to be hard.

USF faces a reality as it prepares to consolidate: This is going to be hard.

TAMPA — All summer, while most students were gone, the University of South Florida has been toiling away on a blueprint for the complex merger of the USF System.Its three universities in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota will soon consolidate into o...
Published: 09/19/18
Employee pay dominates Pasco schools budget debate

Employee pay dominates Pasco schools budget debate

LAND O' LAKES — The Pasco County School Board unanimously adopted a $1.26 billion budget Tuesday with a slightly lowered tax rate and funding for new school construction in both east and west Pasco.But the spending item that grabbed most of th...
Published: 09/19/18