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Board to borrow to upgrade schools

Faced with a $390-million construction deficit, the Hillsborough County School Board voted Tuesday to borrow more money, and tried to find a way to mollify parents upset over a boundary shift aimed at easing overcrowded classrooms.

The board agreed to issue up to $64-million in bonds for additions and renovations to 15 schools. The bonds will be issued on proceeds from the community investment tax voters approved in 1996.

Attorney John Stokes said the bonds can be issued because the school district's proceeds from the sales tax have grown.

Board members supported the move but worried about incurring more debt and hurting the district's bond rating, which is essentially a credit rating. The district currently is about $1-billion in debt.

"We're going to approve this because we don't have any choice," said board member Candy Olson.

The agency estimates it is about $390-million short of what it needs to build the schools necessary to meet the growth demands over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Apollo Beach parents persuaded the board, at least temporarily, not to break the ties between their neighborhood and school. But their victory may not hold.

Twenty-one parents argued against a proposal to shift about 1,000 students - among them about 275 from the old Apollo Beach neighborhood - from nearby East Bay High School to the new Lennard High School, which will open in August in Ruskin.

Parents said the move would break up a close-knit community deeply invested in East Bay High.

"We have worked so hard for these kids," said Lisa Yates. "Please don't take this away from them."

Steven Ayers, who oversees pupil assignment for the district, explained the reasoning behind the shift.

Sending Apollo Beach kids to Lennard, he said, would make room in East Bay for kids from Riverview High School - which would allow students at overcrowded Newsome High School to attend Riverview.

Some board members sympathized with the parents. "If we remove that community . . . that school will fall apart," said member Jennifer Falliero.

Others were more cautious. "What's the consequences if we leave Apollo Beach in there?" asked member Carol Kurdell. "My guess is, we go to double sessions; we go to a seriously overcrowded school."

After discussion, the board voted against the proposal, 4-3. But before parents could celebrate, the board agreed to meet again next Wednesday to consider alternatives - including going back to the plan they just voted down.

Parents hissed in frustration. "This is like saying, "We don't like the results of the vote so we're going to do it again,' " said parent David Riscile.

Board members are preparing to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax in November to help pay for school construction and renovation.