The Hillsborough County School District is one step closer to evening out enrollment at its more than 200 campuses.
The School Board on Tuesday agreed to hire a consulting firm that will spend a year examining school boundaries, looking at both efficiency and socioeconomic diversity.
The firm will also identify under-used schools for “repurposing,” according to the board agenda. The buildings might be put to use as administrative offices, early childhood centers or other functions.
WXY Architecture and Urban Design, based in New York, will be paid $478,881. The firm has done similar work for the Prince George’s County and Montgomery County school districts outside Washington, D.C., and in Lancaster County, Pa.
Hillsborough’s latest five-year facilities plan shows 54 schools are at least a third empty and another 14 are at least half empty. Those with vacant seats include Morgan Woods Elementary in Town ‘N Country, north Tampa’s Adams Middle School, and Seffner Elementary.
By contrast, Roosevelt Elementary in South Tampa and Lincoln Elementary in Plant City are at or over capacity.
The district has taken some steps to move students where there is more room. One neighborhood in the fast-developing Westshore area is being assigned to West Tampa Elementary, Pierce Middle and Jefferson High instead of the more crowded attendance zones for Grady Elementary, Coleman Middle and Plant High.
The WXY project was approved as part of the School Board’s consent agenda, with no discussion at Tuesday’s meeting.
Board members did, however, discuss their finances. District leaders are contemplating a property tax referendum that would raise $126 million a year to help cure a deficit in their operating budget. Voters would be asked to pay an additional $1 for every $1,000 of real estate value, beyond the local impact tax rate already set by the state.
A School Board advisory committee is researching the budget issue before deciding if it will formally support the referendum.
Staff from the budget office said they are working to close the spending deficit by charging expenditures to the appropriate funding sources, including capital dollars for building maintenance, and federal anti-poverty grants for programs at high-needs schools. The district also is imposing strict controls on all hiring decisions, officials said.
“I will tell you that we have done everything that we can to be very critical of any positions that we are hiring, moving forward,” superintendent Addison Davis said.
But staff also noted that Hillsborough is losing $63 million this year through Florida’s expansion of “scholarships” that allow students to attend private schools using public money. That’s triple the usual amount. Another $250 million leaves the district because more than 30,000 students are opting for charter schools, which get state funding but are operated independently.
The issue of under-used schools has been under discussion for more than a year, but it raises some uncomfortable issues. Beyond the fact that communities are often protective of their schools, state law requires the district to offer any school deemed surplus to local charter schools.
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Board members are also aware that Tampa is a destination for many young families who will need those schools. The Zillow real estate firm named Tampa Bay the top housing market in the nation this year.