TAMPA — Facing public concerns about possible school closures, top officials of the Hillsborough County School District downplayed that option Friday.
Addressing an oversight committee for the school system’s half-cent sales tax, deputy superintendent Michael Kemp said the district wants to modify the way it uses partly empty schools, but doesn’t want to shutter or sell the buildings.
“We absolutely want to repurpose our facilities before we surplus them, I’ll tell you that,” Kemp said.
One hypothetical example: Two under-enrolled schools might be combined. The second building might become an early childhood center, something that would boost literacy by ensuring children are well positioned for kindergarten. Or preschool programs could use parts of the buildings. Meeting participants also mentioned the possibility of adult education centers.
“How we repurpose our schools in the future is only limited by our imagination,” Kemp said.
Kemp said that people reacted strongly to an article the Tampa Bay Times published on Feb. 15, based on a recorded interview with Kemp and Superintendent Addison Davis on Feb. 12.
That interview, which the Times followed with an email to Kemp restating the key points, included this question to Davis: Is the district considering options outlined in a corrective plan he shared previously with the School Board and the state Department of Education? The options included: “Review of low-enrollment schools and consider school closure/consolidation/re-districting boundaries.”
Davis replied: “The answer is, absolutely. We are in the process of looking at 60 schools that are under 70 percent capacity.”
He said it was a sensitive issue, as many are urban schools with historic significance. He also said it does not make economic sense to run a school with only about 200 students. He said that some schools also have a history of disappointing academic performance, adding: “Maybe a new look, a new location, a new place might be able to help give the student a sense of hope and the family a sense of hope to be able to be successful.”
Davis contemplated at the time having a draft plan for the School Board to review in March. That document would include information about enrollment, program and transportation costs, and options for adjusting attendance boundaries. Later in the interview, Davis said it was more likely the document would be released in early April. After extensive community feedback, he anticipated a board vote in August.
But on Friday, Kemp said the document will be sparse on details, perhaps just a list of the under-enrolled schools.
The two made it clear on Feb. 12 that no changes can happen until 2022 or later, after the community outreach.
“Unfortunately,” Kemp said Friday, “some have taken the effort to be transparent about some of the conversations we are going to have in the future and turned it into a ‘now’ thing.”
There are numerous arguments against closing a school. As Davis indicated, schools hold historic significance in neighborhoods. Plus, a shuttered school creates the appearance of a school system in distress.
And, as oversight committee member Bonnie Carr pointed out Friday, Hillsborough’s population is growing. While school enrollment dropped this year, that is likely the result of the pandemic and therefore temporary.
“My fear would be we react too soon, assume we have too much,” she said, ”and then find ourselves in a situation where it was even worse because now we don’t have the schools we need.”
Another disincentive discussed Friday: State law requires districts to offer their surplus buildings to charter schools, which get tax funding, but operate independently.
“They would get the use of the building for free once it’s deemed surplus,” Chief of Operations Chris Farkas said. ”I think the last thing we would do is give away a multimillion dollar school to anyone.”
It is more likely the district would use some of the space for preschool or adult education, he said.
Kemp compared reactions to the school closing story to pushback over a recent School Board vote to offer its downtown headquarters for sale.
In both situations, he used the term “scrimmage” to describe the district’s need to explore scenarios as it seeks to improve its financial footing.
“You start to have an initial conversation just to explore options, and from that it can go somewhere else,” Kemp said. But “the superintendent is focused on making sure that we at least scrimmage, because there’s power in the scrimmage. That doesn’t mean those things will take place. But you’ve got to have conversations.”