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Small site may ease overcrowded school

Built for 882 students, Bryant Elementary School just outside Westchase had 1,168 children enrolled by early September, making it the most overcrowded elementary school in Hillsborough County.

The school district plans to ease Bryant's load by the start of the 2006-07 academic year, and now officials think they know where they want to build.

Their proposed site, which goes to the School Board on Tuesday for consideration, is about a mile east of Bryant on Racetrack Road, right by Waterchase Boulevard.

Making it unusual, it's only slightly larger than an acre. More often, Florida school districts try to put elementary schools on at least 20 acres.

Jill Lemons, the school district's property manager, admitted that her first reaction to the idea of building a school on an acre was "No way."

But when she visited the site, which developer Bill Bishop has offered to donate through his Foundation for a Better Place, Lemons said she saw the possibilities.

"There is community parking around the whole site," she said. "There is a town center park that sits in front of the property. There is also a community playground right in front, and it backs up to Ed Radice Park."

If the school district shares all those features with the planned, 400-home Highland Park community that Bishop is building, she said, the idea of a school on 1.32 acres begins to sound less ridiculous.

After all, Lemons noted, the site translates into more than 50,000 square feet if built lot line to lot line, and that's "more than adequate" for a school's first-floor core facilities. The entire school might be three or four stories high.

"It's very innovative," she said. "It's something we truly have not looked at before. But with land being scarce and population increasing ... we have to become creative in some areas."

Bishop, who owns Leslie Land Corp., said he was pleased that district officials are willing to consider the concept.

"What I'm hoping ... is the idea if we weave a school into the community, the people who live in the community will invest time and energy on the neighborhood school and create very superior schools," Bishop said.

The Highland Park subdivision will have about 400 homes when completed, and the Waterchase subdivision across the street will have another 800. Many of the homeowners will have the means to send their children to private schools, Bishop said.

If the nearest public school is "just an institution that's five miles down the road," buy-in could be low, he suggested. But if the school and the neighborhoods are intermingled, he said, a true community could be developed.

"And by community I don't mean a subdivision," he said. "I mean actual community of people."

Lemons said she was encouraged that a developer came to the school district with such a proposal, especially after watching some neighborhoods fight to keep campuses away.

If the School Board approves moving ahead, she said, her staff will conduct a more thorough evaluation of the site, which would have to be rezoned for a school.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (813) 269-5304 or solocheksptimes.com.

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