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Double sessions may be ahead

(ran PW, PS editions)

Double sessions. The words make lots of longtimers in Pasco County cringe.

Those who lived through the building boom of the 1970s remember what it was like to stuff two schools into one facility, with students and teachers attending in half-day shifts.

"The stress it puts on the faculty, the staff, it's almost overwhelming," Pasco County schools superintendent John Long said.

But get ready: Long and Chief Financial Officer Chuck Rushe said that if the Penny for Pasco sales tax initiative fails at the polls March 9, as many as 14 schools could be headed for the dreaded D-word within three years.

"We don't have many options," Long said.

With 46 of the district's 54 elementary, middle and high school facilities over capacity and an additional 2,000 students enrolling in 57,000-student Pasco County each year, space needs are not an imagined problem, he said.

Long said schools that are more than 40 percent over capacity likely will be tapped to rearrange their class schedules to accommodate growth. Fourteen schools qualify today, according to district numbers.

Though pro-Penny advocates have made repeated references to the ability of the proposed 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase to stave off the threat of double sessions, Long and Rushe have until now shied away from making specific claims as to what could happen if the vote fails.

That's in contrast to a failed 1995 effort when the threat of double sessions was repeated in detail in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times as the district pleaded with voters to approve a similar increase in sales taxes.

The tax failed, but the threats never came to fruition. That was due in large part to the 1997 infusion of state dollars to help build schools and reduce portable classrooms, administrators hold.

This time, Long said, "We've not gotten out there and harped about what was not going to happen if it failed."

The change in campaign tone, he said, was not an intentional response to the 1995 effort.

"We just said, "Let's concentrate on the positive. Let's not get out there and promote the negative."'

Rushe, one of two candidates currently in the running to fill Long's seat when he retires this year, said he'd like to delay moving to the double sessions as long as possible _ three years would be about the beginning of the phase-in.

But Long, calling double sessions "the worst thing you can do for students," said he thinks that's optimistic.

"The Legislature and the governor are not going to step up and save us like they did in 1997," Long said.

Ann Bunting, leader of the Citizens Against a Penny for Pasco, said she's not buying it.

"What's to say the Legislature isn't going to help them out again if they helped them out before?" Bunting said.

With the district's current capital budget at $104-million, Bunting maintains that should be able to keep the schools afloat.

According to the School Board-approved $640-million 2003-04 budget, the bulk of the capital funds are being used for the construction of three new schools, the recently completed Pine View Middle School in Land O'Lakes, districtwide maintenance and facilities upgrades, as well as for debt service.

Pasco County is the fifth-fastest growing school district in the state.

Rushe and Long said failure of the tax would require the School Board to reset its building priorities to deal primarily with growth. They hope the Penny would pull in $196.8-million in new revenues for the schools over the 10-year life of the tax.

_ Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanellosptimes.com.

Overcrowded

Pasco County schools superintendent John Long said schools that are over permanent building capacity (doesn't include portable classrooms) by upward of 40 percent could face the possibility of double sessions within three years if voters don't pass the Penny for Pasco sales tax increase March 9. According to district numbers, 14 schools already qualify.

School name Percent of capacity

Elementary schools

Wesley Chapel 169

Fox Hollow 175

Trinity 159

Chasco 157

Deer Park 161

Sand Pine 158

Cypress 155

Hudson 158

Middle schools

Weightman 177

Seven Springs 149

Pine View 155

High schools

Land O'Lakes 154

Ridgewood 144

Taylor 146

_ Source: Pasco County School District

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