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Hernando's crowded schools mirror growth in '80s

(ran PC edition)

When School Board member Jim Malcolm looks to the future, he sees a repeat of the 1980s, a decade during which Hernando County's population increased 127 percent.

"I think you're seeing a parallel," Malcolm said. "In the '80s, I think you will see references in newspaper articles that they called it the boom time. Since then, I think they can call it the boom cycle. . . . We're about to get killed."

The proof, he said, is in the apartments rising next to Powell Middle School, the subdivisions popping up along U.S. 41, and the homes being built on single lots near J.D. Floyd and other elementary schools. More of each, he noted, are planned.

And the school district has little room left to comfortably welcome the students who are coming. Already, the schools use 157 portable classrooms. The vast majority of schools are closed to out-of-zone transfers.

This time around, Malcolm only hopes the school district can find less costly ways to cope with growth. He and his colleagues are pushing a pay-as-you-go construction program, bolstered by a half-cent sales tax that voters will consider March 9, as the best solution.

School administrators see the need for at least six new schools over the next 10 years. District finance officials estimate the tax could raise about $60-million, roughly half of the amount needed to pay for the schools.

"We are telling people that there are options. We're not saying this is the only way to do it," said John Druzbick, board member and chairman of the Make Cents for Kids political action committee that is backing the sales tax. "We are suggesting strongly the half-cent sales tax will be the most cost-effective and least expensive way to build the schools we need."

The alternatives include year-round school, double sessions, bigger class sizes (contrary to state mandates) and taking out loans.

Twenty years ago, the School Board did not have the choice of levying a sales tax. When it tried to increase the property tax rate by 20 percent in 1981, hundreds of residents mobbed the board and threatened members.

Still, Hernando County's population surged. The county ranked among the five fastest-growing counties in the country. School-age children flooded the district _ small and rural at the time _ and very quickly they had no place to sit.

Needing to build, and mindful of the unpopularity of a general tax increase, the board borrowed. And borrowed. And borrowed some more.

By the early 1990s, the district wallowed in debt, nearly $90-million all told. Six new schools were built; additions and renovations were made to seven others.

Taxpayers are still paying the bill.

The debt made for a skittish board, regardless of who served. Board members refused to take out another loan, if at all possible, knowing that Hernando had the highest debt-per-student ratio in Florida.

And for a while, that strategy proved successful, as growth slowed to a point where the district could absorb new students in existing classrooms or with portable buildings.

Yet it couldn't last.

By the late 1990s, growth began to push the district beyond its capacity. Using existing funds, the board built Chocachatti Elementary School. It could not cover the costs of a needed new high school from its bank account, though, and had to find another way to pay.

Still fearful of debt, which was slowly shrinking through payments and refinancing at lower interest rates, the board asked voters to raise the local sales tax. State lawmakers only recently had given school districts the power to levy a "discretionary sales surtax" not to exceed a half percent, with voter approval.

School Board members reasoned that they would generate the needed revenue without incurring the interest payments that come with loans. So they went for it.

In 1998, Hernando became one of the first school districts in Florida to take advantage of the new taxing authority. About 53.5 percent of voters backed the idea. All but seven of the county's 51 precincts supported the measure.

That tax, which raised $24.3-million plus interest for the construction of Nature Coast Technical High School, expired in December. The need for new schools did not.

In fact, enrollment has again surged beyond expectations. The student count, at 16,800 just three years ago, surpassed 19,300 in January and could top 24,000 within five years.

Once-comfortable campuses such as Spring Hill and Suncoast elementary schools turned crowded practically overnight. Plans for new dwellings across the county prompted concerns that the district is ill prepared for the onslaught of students to come.

"I think we have no idea what the influx is going to be like," board member Gail David said, suggesting the district's population projections are low. "The (state) class-size (reduction) amendment also will be a factor. I don't know what is going to happen."

But the need for schools is clear, David insisted.

Already, the board has borrowed $30-million to finance a 1,400-student campus scheduled to open in August 2005. But it hopes to minimize borrowing, and the accompanying interest, by asking voters to renew the half-cent sales tax for another 10 years.

Board members say the tax is the best way to accommodate the students, who again face the prospect of having no place to sit.

"We could borrow," Druzbick said, "but the board would rather not."