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Plan targets school renovations

Amid all the talk this week about building new schools, Sen. Jim Hargrett wants to make sure that the need for repairs at many of Tampa's oldest, shoddiest schools don't get ignored.

The Tampa Democrat has been promoting a plan that would require the Hillsborough School Board to earmark 25 percent of whatever new construction money it gets from this week's special legislative session for renovation of older schools.

Hillsborough school officials object to the plan because it would limit how they can spend the new money. And, they argue, they're already doing the job.

"We've already got a commitment to spend money renovating our older schools," said Mike Bookman, assistant superintendent for Hillsborough schools, who is in Tallahassee this week.

During the past five years, the Hillsborough schools have spent about $105-million renovating schools, including complete make-overs at Progress Village ($10.8-million) and Rowland Park Middle School ($9.4-million).

But Hargrett said that despite the district's laudable record in recent years, he remembers that for many years the district spent very little money renovating schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

"The evidence on the ground is that those areas have been neglected," Hargrett said. The district is "doing better, but they're subject to who has the strongest PTA."

In fact, Hargrett said, if the district intends to spend so much money renovating old schools in the near future, the amendment wouldn't affect the district much at all.

"This is just to make sure," Hargrett said. "I know they're nervous about it, but I can't apologize for looking out for my people. I don't want to go back and tell my constituents that I think, I hope, I pray we took care of this. We're going to take care of it."

Although it's uncertain how much new money school districts will get out of the special legislative session this week, an infusion of construction dollars clearly is on the way. Based on some estimates early in the session (the dollar amounts change several times a day), Hargrett's plan would require that Hillsborough spend roughly $40-million renovating old schools in the next several years.

Bookman warned that the amendment _ if it survives the week _ might have some unintended consequences. In the House version of the funding bill, districts are offered incentives for removing portable classrooms and replacing them with new classrooms. If one quarter of Hillsborough's new money is devoted to renovation, the district might have less to spend removing portables.

As the amendment is written, only two school districts _ Duval and Hillsborough _ would be affected by the requirement to spend 25 percent of their new money on older schools. One of the two amendment sponsors, Sen. Betty Holzendorf, represents Duval. Hargrett represents much of Hillsborough.

Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, promoted her amendment as "an equity issue."

"I am afraid we're going to take these dollars and use them all on new schools, and ignore the children in the old schools," she said. "At some of our schools, going to a portable would be a move up."