TAMPA — There were few happy faces in the audience Tuesday night after the Hillsborough County School Board settled on a plan to temporarily alleviate south county’s overcrowded middle schools.
The board voted 5-2 to move forward a proposal to send 223 students from affluent A-rated Barrington Middle School in Lithia to nearby Rodgers Middle, a B-rated Title 1 school in Riverview that receives extra federal resources to help poor children.
The board had three options for redrawing the school boundaries for the 2020-21 school year, and voted to bring “Plan A” up at their March 10 meeting for a second reading so they can hear public input.
Lacking money to build new schools, the district says there is little it can do to absorb the tidal wave of students expected to move to south county as massive new residential developments begin to open.
It’s only a “Band-Aid on a broken arm,” said chairwoman Melissa Snively, who voted against Plan A along with board member Lynn Gray. That’s because the district will have to rezone the schools all over again in 2021, when construction is expected to finish on the new “Middle School UU,” which will be located somewhere along U.S. 301.
Parents of students at Barrington, Rodgers and Giunta middle schools haven’t held back in their criticism of the district’s proposed reshuffling of their boundaries. But on Tuesday it was Barrington parents who offered the harshest criticism.
“Rodgers is a Title 1 school and you’re talking about moving my daughter from one of the top-rated schools in the state of Florida to Rodgers,” Barrington Middle parent Catherine Xavier said through tears. “That is unacceptable. I cannot accept that.”
One after the other, Barrington parents besieged the school board meeting with their objections. They said the first deadline to submit applications for school choice had already passed by the time parents in Riverview’s Panther Trace subdivision learned their students could be forced to go to a new school next year.
They also cited the disparity in school grades. Barrington is an A school, while Rodgers recently moved from a C to a B. Giunta Middle, which was included in the other reshuffling options, currently has a D grade.
“As a mom and an educator I have a lot of compassion for those parents at Barrington who could potentially be moved to Giunta,” board member Stacy Hahn said. “We would be moving students from an A or B school to a D school ... We had a speaker up here say our oath is to do no harm; that’s doing harm.”
But board member Tamara Shamburger urged the board to embrace a move to diversify its schools, while others encouraged parents to take their concerns to Wednesday’s Hillsborough County Commission meeting, where that board was poised to approve a March 4 public hearing on raising school impact fees for developers.
“I don’t want anybody to ever say that this board perpetuates the punitive system that we live with, a system that keeps its foot on top of the necks of the most disadvantaged people just to keep them down and make a mockery of them,” Shamburger said. “Every school in our county deserves to be thriving, and maybe we ought to be more intentional about that.”
Snively challenged Superintendent Jeff Eakins’ replacement, incoming Superintendent Addison Davis, to put addressing south county’s overcrowded schools at the top of his to-do list.
“I’m disappointed the numbers won’t be as aggressive for Barrington as I had hoped," she said, "and I’m worried we’re going to be right back where we were next year.”
About 1,652 new homes are being built within the boundaries for Barrington Middle, according to the county’s planning department. Barrington is already one of Hillsborough’s most overcrowded schools, now at 109 percent capacity. The school’s population is expected to swell to 130 percent capacity in just three years.
District staff has spent months trying to figure out how to find more seats for students. But FishHawk Ranch parents quashed two previous proposals. Instead, those parents convinced the school board to bring the Panther Trace area into the mix of neighborhoods of students who could be moved.
Before the board picked the Barrington-Rodgers plan, the eight board members unanimously approved Davis’ new contract. Then they stood behind him as he signed it with eight different pens. He donned a bright white Hillsborough County Public Schools ball cap and held up a polo shirt, as if he were signing a scholarship offer.
He is set to officially join the school district on March 2 as an “administrator on assignment,” shadowing Eakins until the superintendent departs on March 13, the last school day before Spring Break. Davis will become acting superintendent while Atkins burns through his remaining unused vacation days.
On July 1, Davis will officially take over as superintendent of the Hillsborough County School District.