Hillsborough to take a close look at school boundaries

A consultant will likely do a broad analysis to see if it’s time to redistribute students.
New school construction and boundary changes would help ease crowded conditions at schools such as Lithia's Barrington Middle, shown here.
New school construction and boundary changes would help ease crowded conditions at schools such as Lithia's Barrington Middle, shown here. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published July 12, 2021

Hillsborough County public school officials are in the early stages of what could be a massive overhaul of school boundaries.

District staff will recommend that the School Board seek the help of a consultant at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The team will look at campuses such as Shields and Coleman middle schools, which are near or above capacity, along with Monroe and Madison middle schools, which have seats to spare.

A board workshop is planned on July 27. On Tuesday, board members will receive the second of two short reports outlining the steps ahead.

“What’s going to be so important is the community outreach piece,” said Amber Dickerson, general manager of the district’s growth management and planning office.

Some in the community reacted harshly when, in February, superintendent Addison Davis discussed the need to close or consolidate some of the dozens of under-enrolled Hillsborough schools to save money. At the time, he said he would have a preliminary plan for the board to review in March or April.

Related: Hillsborough eyes closing, merging schools to help fix budget woes

That never happened. Instead, district leaders are treading carefully into the process and hoping that, with a professional study backing them up, they can get public support for tough decisions.

Two opposing sets of problems confront them: Crowded conditions in the booming South County suburbs, and empty seats in urban and suburban schools that have lost more than 30,000 students to independently managed charter schools.

Boundary changes — if the district can overcome public resistance — can even out some of those differences.

Another tactic they will try is opening new PK-8 schools, which have proven popular in the charter sector. Hillsborough is converting an office and warehouse center in South Tampa into one such school. New Manhattan PK-8 will help ease crowding in the South Tampa’s elementary schools. But it will also draw from Madison and Monroe, creating uncertainty for those two middle schools.

The McLane, Mann, Sligh, Dowdell, Giunta, Adams and Young middle schools are also considered “under-utilized.” But, for now, there is no talk of closing any of them.

Instead, operations chief Chris Farkas said the district might try to use some wings in the schools for other purposes. “The superintendent and board have pushed pretty hard about need for VPK and Head Start,” Farkas said. “We definitely can create a school within a school.”

In South and East Hillsborough, the district continues to try and keep pace with population growth.

Plans for a new school in August 2022 on Bishop Road in Wimauma were held up by county concerns about road construction. Instead, the district is moving forward with a PK-8 school in the Waterset section of Apollo Beach and converting Collins Elementary into a PK-8 as well.

One of the reports indicated that Oak Park and Foster Elementary might have to be “repurposed,” with their students relocated to Frost, Bing and other elementary schools.

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The schools, both rated F, are in a state turnaround process and could be forced to close if the past year’s test scores do not show improvement.

MGT of America Consulting is the state-approved “external operator” for both schools. Davis assured the State Board of Education recently that, based on mid-year test data, both schools are on track to improve their grades.