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State fair, Hillsborough schools have lucrative relationship

TAMPA — The relationship between the Hillsborough County school district and the Florida State Fair Authority, tested this year by problems at the end of a student fair day, is one with a lot of zeros at the end.

Between scholarships and prizes, exhibit space and discounts, the relationship is worth $1.5 million a year to the district, according to a letter to officials who have been rethinking the annual student day at the fair.

Discussions began after unruly behavior on a Friday evening in February led law enforcement officials to eject close to 100 fairgoers. One, a 14-year-old private school student, was later killed by a passing car on Interstate 4.

Despite years of problems on fair day, when many public schools are closed and students get free admission, neither superintendent MaryEllen Elia nor the School Board expressed any intent to end the practice after the Feb. 7 incident.

Some board members said the fair provides opportunities for agriculture students, and for others to learn about agriculture.

While it's hard to put a price on those benefits, the letter from fair authority executive director Charles Pesano does just that.

"On an annual basis the Authority commits over $1.5 million to support its fair and nonfair agricultural and educational programs," he wrote.

The contributions he listed include:

• Nearly $400,000 in prizes, scholarships, savings bonds and cash.

• $277,000 awarded to Champion of Champion winners in livestock contests.

• $125,000 to promote educational activities, scholarships and grants raised in a golf tournament.

• $50,000 of exhibit space donated for Hillsborough schools during the fair.

• Discounts and free space for math league competitions, choice program expos and other district events, including high school graduations.

Money flows the other way too, according to fair records.

Midway revenues were the highest for any weekday during the Hillsborough student days, at $598,736 this year and $973,148 in 2013.

Addressing the issue of fair safety at a recent board meeting, Elia said progress has been made in meetings with fair officials and law enforcement.

"Everyone is rethinking how they work with the fair and how that can support the fair being successful as a community and family event," Elia said.

A plan described in Pesano's letter addresses the behavior problems on several fronts.

Students who arrive after 6 p.m. will have to be accompanied by adults 21 or older, who will be allowed to enter free.

Students using free passes will have to show school-issued photo identification, day or night. Younger children who do not have photo ID cards will get alternative forms of identification.

Changes will be made to the layout of the fair grounds to make it easier to identify certain areas and to discourage crowds from congregating in large areas.

There will be planning and public awareness campaigns involving school leaders, law enforcement and community organizations including Pastors on Patrol and the NAACP.

Students who are on suspension will not get the free passes.

Some area county school districts have fair days on weekends, said John Prestianni, the authority's finance director.

But to the best of his knowledge, no such arrangement has been considered for Hillsborough, as the district is large and, given its location, generates far more traffic.

"We're already very crowded on the weekends," he said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

State fair, Hillsborough schools have lucrative relationship 05/21/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 10:48pm]
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