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Schools forecast worse space, teacher squeeze

Hillsborough County schools expect to enroll another record number of students next year, meaning a continued demand for classroom space and an all-out scramble for teachers.

It is estimated Hillsborough will grow by 5,612 students when the new school year begins this fall, beating this year's record increase by about 300 students.

In all, Hillsborough, the 12th largest school district in the nation, expects to enroll 157,703 children for kindergarten through grade 12, and for Head Start, pre-kindergarten and other special education programs.

"It's scary," said School Board member Candy Olson. "No. 1, where do you put them? And No. 2, where do you find qualified teachers?"

To meet the growth, Hillsborough will need to hire about 300 new classroom teachers and about 150 other support personnel, such as counselors, media specialists and coaches.

Unfortunately, the need comes during a teacher shortage caused by the growing demands of the job, other opportunities available in a booming economy and a work force driven more by money than public service, assistant superintendent David Binnie said. In Hillsborough, the starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree was raised last year to $25,000.

Binnie will ask the School Board this month to approve a full-time teacher recruiter. A greater emphasis will be placed on hiring non-education majors not only to fill new spots, but also to replace teachers who retire or resign.

"We're reaching a point where the teachers who came in to meet the needs of the baby boomers are ready to retire," said Hillsborough school Superintendent Earl Lennard. "And now the baby boom echo is increasing the demand for teachers."

Also needed is space, even with five new schools opening this year. A sixth school, Orange Grove Middle, will reopen as a magnet school for the arts. It was closed this year for renovations.

Jim Hamilton, assistant superintendent for operations, said the school district faces about $1.3-billion worth of construction and renovation needs. Even with plans to build 22 schools in 15 years, the district is playing catch-up, having grown by about 34,000 students in the past decade.

"I think people think schools drive growth," Olson said. "But we're not allowed to build a school until 80 percent of the children needed to fill that school are already here."

Hamilton said the situation is worsened by state projections for county enrollments, which had Hillsborough expecting to serve about 3,000 children fewer than it actually did.

If the growth of resources does not keep up with the growth of enrollment, he said, "that puts us further in the hole, because we do not have the option to not admit students."

The growth is painfully evident in northwest Hillsborough, north Tampa and southeast Brandon.

Walker Middle in Odessa, which opened this year, will be at double its capacity, with 1,864 students. Sickles High, which opened this year in Citrus Park, will be on double sessions next year with an expected enrollment of 3,198 students, the largest in the district.

Gaither High in Northdale, which is projected to get 2,970 students, will again, for a third year, send its students to either a morning or afternoon session. It was to get relief this year with a new high school in Lutz, but trouble acquiring a site has put that project on hold.

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