Asmaller-than-expected student population in Pasco County's public schools shouldn't be construed as a reason to hold your breath. On the contrary, a slight dip in the projected number of students might be better cast as a chance to catch your breath.
After an extended period of breakneck growth, Pasco has joined most of the rest of the state with a declining student population, at least according to its first-week attendance figures. Certainly, there are budget considerations. State aid is based on a projected student population growth of nearly 1,400 students this year. Instead, enrollment dropped by 250 to 63,137.
Yet, it is difficult to construe this as a potential $4.5-million spending cut if the money is earmarked for educating students who aren't here. Granted some costs are fixed. The price of running a bus route remains the same whether the bus is filled to capacity or has a few empty seats. And you still have to fill school media centers with books even if there are 50 fewer students to check them out.
However, the largest category in the operating budget is personnel costs and school district officials wisely froze some teaching vacancies because of state budget uncertainty. When additional enrollment data is available in October, it most likely could mean transferring positions among individual schools.
The public comments that are sure to follow — questioning/criticizing building new schools if enrollment is declining — will be off base. Take a look at Oakstead Elementary. It opened two years ago with 680 students. Last week, it had 1,072 pupils and began the school year last week with 22 portable classrooms. Crowding also exists at Mitchell High (2,378 students last week) Longleaf and Wesley Chapel elementary schools and at other spots around Pasco County.
To compensate, a high school in Holiday, an elementary school in the Watergrass area of Wesley Chapel and another in Connerton in central Pasco are scheduled to open in August 2009. A new high school in Hudson and the renovations to Sanders Elementary in Land O'Lakes are expected the following year and the district is seeking a school site in the State Road 54 corridor through Odessa to relieve Longleaf and Oakstead.
Long-term planning is another story. Here is where the district must crunch its demographic data to try to determine if future growth demands can be met by adding wings to current buildings instead of constructing new schools. District officials also are re-evaluating the strategy of land banking property for future schools. The district owns land off Old Pasco Road in the middle of the county that is earmarked for a high school, middle school, bus garage and warehouse. Don't expect that property to be under-utilized. Growth demands in Wesley Chapel won't relax for long.
Other sites, however, are getting a second look. The district is acquiring land for an elementary school off Otis Allen Road north of Zephyrhills and, besides the SR 54 corridor, is searching for property in northwest Pasco. Construction there is not expected to start until 2013 at the earliest and could be pushed back as more accurate projections become available.
The district must determine if the public is better served by paying millions of dollars now for land that could sit idle for years if housing starts remain stagnate, or if it should gamble that vacant land will remain available at reasonable prices down the road.