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County to stay off school bandwagon

School district officials from across the state will arrive in Tallahassee next month, desperate for money to build new schools.

Pinellas officials will not.

Other district leaders are looking for the Legislature to authorize them to levy a half-cent sales tax to help pay for hundreds of schools they say they will need in the next decade.

Pinellas school officials are not.

Unlike any other large district in Florida, Pinellas has all the schools it needs for the foreseeable future.

For the first time since World War II, it will have no new schools on the drawing board once three under construction are finished.

And, Superintendent Howard Hinesley said, the district has the money it needs to renovate and expand its 130 schools, more than half of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s or before.

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, has been lobbying during legislative sessions since the 1970s. He does not plan to attend this one.

Pinellas is in this position, in part, because it does not have much room to grow.

"That just tells you that our county is 90 percent developed," said Tony Rivas, director of facilities. "There's not a lot more land."

By contrast, Hillsborough County has five schools opening next year and another high school on the drawing board. And it has not even begun its next five-year plan.

Pasco, also working on its next five-year plan, has two new high schools and an elementary school under construction.

Pinellas plans no more new schools through 2002, and there is no indication that any new schools will be in the plan for 2002 to 2007.

"There isn't ever going to be another elementary school built in this county," Moore said. "We've got enough."

Marlene Mueller, director of pupil assignment for Pinellas, said she would not go that far.

But, she said she does not expect a new elementary school for at least 10 to 15 years.

"We already have more elementary spaces than we have kids," and the elementary population is expected to peak next year, Mueller said. "Middle schools and high schools are comfortable."

Some schools remain crowded because extra space is not always in the same part of the county as the children who need it.

Even lowering class sizes to previous levels will not increase space needs that much, Moore said. "Maybe 10 percent more rooms at an elementary school, max."

The district, which has about 107,000 students this year, has been adding 2,000 a year for the past several years, Mueller said. By 2002, that growth should be down to about 1,000 students a year.

Pinellas eventually might need another middle school in the Safety Harbor area, she said, and the district likely will need to expand Palm Harbor University High School.

Officials acknowledge they may never get rid of every portable classroom because neighborhoods change and students shift from area to area, even when the overall population is stagnant.

They said they will try to use future construction money to get rid of as many of the district's 500 portable classrooms as possible by adding class space at schools.

"I would love to get rid of every single one," School Board chairwoman Corinne Freeman said.

The rest of the $63.3-million the district raises for capital improvements each year through property taxes will be used to modernize older schools.

Rivas, the director of facilities, said a lot of the schools that need attention are 25 to 40 years old.

"A lot of the things we'll be doing may not be glamorous, but it is a lot of functional types of things."

Pinellas has been building steadily since about 1950. The district built about 40 schools in the 1950s and about 30 in the 1960s.

Since 1970, at least one school has opened almost every year.

Even the schools built in the 1970s need money to upgrade air-conditioning systems and install technology, officials said.

In addition to those improvements, the district will try to upgrade air quality, install air-conditioning in cafeteria kitchens and add music and art rooms to schools that do not have them.

"Renovations are expensive," Hinesley said. "We have lots of needs identified."

Moore said lots of schools have been waiting their turns.

"The neat thing is you get to go back in and renovate to the standard used in the most recent construction," Moore said.

"We're going to be taking a lot of old buildings and bringing them up to the standards of McMullen-Booth" Elementary, one of the county's newest schools.

"I think we will be renovating forever," Moore said. "That process never ends."

Pinellas school construction

1970 Eisenhower Elementary

1971 Maximo Elem.

Seminole Middle

1972 Bardmoor Elem.

1974 Bauder Elem.

1975 Paul B. Stephens

Exceptional Center

1976 Walsingham Elem.

Sandy Lane Elem.

Pinellas Park High

Morgan Fitzgerald Middle

1979 Countryside High

1980 Leila G. Davis Elem.

Osceola High

1981 Tarpon Springs Middle

1982 Curlew Creek Elem.

Palm Harbor Middle

1983 Osceola Middle School

1986 Sutherland Elem.

1987 East Lake High

Cypress Woods Elem.

Southern Oak Elem.

1988 Lake St. George Elem.

1989 Hamilton Disston

1990 Calvin Hunsinger

Garrison-Jones Elem.

1991 Sawgrass Lake Elem.

Oldsmar Elem. +

Highland Lakes Elem.

1992 Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Elem.

1993 Joseph L. Carwise Middle

1994 Frontier Elem.

1995 Coachman Fundamental ++

Forest Lakes Elem.

Ozona Elem. +

1996 Palm Harbor University High

1997 McMullen-Booth Elem.

Sexton Elem.

Brooker Creek Elem.

1998 16th Street Middle +

Lakewood Elem. +

1999 Perkins Elem. +

(expected opening)

+ New school replacing old school

++ School Board purchased former church to house school.

Sources: School district, Times files, School History: Tradition of Excellence