Lutz families push for Steinbrenner High boundaries

LUTZ — Ten years ago, nothing stirred up controversy in Lutz like the idea of a new high school.

Now, a new Lutz high school is under construction — not at an originally proposed unpopular location, but on a site more acceptable to the community.

And with George Steinbrenner High School set to open next fall, some parents around Lutz are buzzing again. This time, the talk is about where their children will end up going to high school.

A loosely organized group of a dozen or more families have begun lobbying to have the boundaries for Steinbrenner drawn so their children attend high school in Lutz. Some prefer Steinbrenner; others simply want students from Lutz to attend the same school in Lutz.

"Lutz wants to go to school together," says attorney and parent Bret Anderson.

Parents could get a chance to make that happen, a school official says, though perhaps not in the way they propose.

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Typically, Lutz families who live west of U.S. 41 send their children to Gaither High School. Those east of U.S. 41 are zoned for Freedom High School in New Tampa.

With the opening of Steinbrenner, some parents say students going to Freedom should attend a school closer to home.

Troy Muilenburg's daughter, Sierra Jo, 16, is an 11th-grader at Freedom. She drives every day during volleyball season and two to three days a week in the off-season.

"The new high school is going to be 6 miles from my house," said Muilenburg, 45, who has two younger children and lives off Sunset Lane, east of U.S. 41. "Do the math. Why would you even send a bus out 14 miles away when there's a school 6 miles away?"

Steinbrenner High — named for the legendary New York Yankees owner, business tycoon and Tampa Bay area philanthropist — will be a $60-million school on Lutz-Lake Fern Road, near the Veterans Expressway.

It is being built primarily to provide relief to Sickles and Gaither high schools, but it's also expected to affect Alonzo and Leto.

Though the school's capacity will be 2,359 students, it probably will open with about 2,000 because it will not have a senior class its first year, said Steve Ayers, the school district's director of community and parent relations.

"I'm getting a number of e-mails from the Lutz community, which is fine," Ayers said. "It's information we need to know."

Freedom is below its capacity, so there's no reason to provide any relief to it by adjusting its boundaries, he said.

But even if Freedom's boundaries don't change, parents there still could go through the choice program to end up at a different school in the Lutz area, Ayers said. He anticipates that Gaither and Steinbrenner will have seats available through the choice program.

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This is not the first time that Lutz parents have lobbied on this point.

A decade ago, the idea of building a high school in Lutz stalled when a shopping center developer bought part of the site the School Board preferred.

Instead, the school district turned to New Tampa and built Freedom High.

In 2001, before Freedom opened, Lutz parents protested plans to use U.S. 41 as a boundary.

This time, they hope administrators will consider their community's strong identity in adjusting school boundaries.

"Relieving overcrowded schools has to be the first priority," Anderson said, "but relieving overcrowded schools does not preclude the Lutz community's goal of being together."

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The boundaries are still taking shape. On Tuesday, the School Board voted to pay a consultant $142,000 to help draw boundaries for Steinbrenner and a high school being built in eastern Hillsborough.

School administrators brought in SeerAnalytics to help sort through the boundary issues for the new Sgt. Paul Smith Middle School in Citrus Park.

The company uses sophisticated mathematical models to balance transportation costs, diversity issues and other factors to help draw the zones.

"Ideally, we would have something prior to the winter holiday," Ayers said. But the process has been delayed a bit, so the proposed boundaries might not be ready until after Christmas.

Before the proposal goes to the School Board for final approval, the district plans to meet with residents to hear their comments on at least one set of proposed boundaries, and maybe more.

Depending on what administrators hear, the plans may be tweaked further.

But the boundaries need to be set by February or March, Ayers said.

Lutz homemaker Jean Jones said she's glad an outside party will help the school district because she thinks "there's a lot of unfair bias against Lutz."

It would be bad, she said, if the memory of Lutz's past opposition to one school site affected officials' thinking about where the boundaries should be for a new school at a different location.

"A lot has changed since the '90s," said Jones, who lives in the Lakes of Wellington off Newberger Road.

Ayers said the focus will be on relieving overcrowding.

"We don't have time to harbor animosity," he said.

During Tuesday's meeting, however, School Board member Candy Olson did suggest that Lutz's past opposition to a high school led to circumstances that may not be addressed by the next set of changes to school boundaries.

"We tried to build a high school in Lutz; we tried very hard," Olson said. In response, the community fought the School Board site by site, she said, went to court and did not object to having students attend school outside Lutz.

"We are not going to be able to make everyone happy," she said. "I think we need to be real clear about that."

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Lutz families push for Steinbrenner High boundaries 10/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 2:13pm]

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