Consultants are speeding up a study that could change the boundaries determining where students go to public school in Hillsborough County.
The New York architecture firm WXY Urban Design got the approval it needed for the change at Tuesday’s School Board meeting, along with an $88,000 enhancement to its $478,881 contract. The study will take eight months instead of a year, with results expected in January.
The study was commissioned because of a widespread belief that school boundaries are out of date due to changes in neighborhoods and family preferences under school choice.
In some cases, so many families have left for magnet and independently managed charter schools that the neighborhood schools are largely empty. Last year’s five-year capital improvement plan showed that 54 schools were at least a third empty and another 14 were at least half empty.
A state scholarship program that sends children to private schools is a third factor that drains attendance. Another is the fact that students in Hillsborough can now attend any schools with space available, as long as they can provide their own transportation.
Taken together, these issues often lead to departures that can hurt a school’s overall performance. A recent Tampa Bay Times report showed that Hillsborough’s D and F schools kept between 39 and 69 percent of the students in their attendance zones while more successful schools saw between 80 and 90 percent of students remain.
Half-empty schools also are a drain on the school district’s budget. Despite the drop in per-pupil funding, these schools still must cover fixed costs such as a principal, guidance and library staff, cafeteria and security guard.
The WXY study’s objectives are “to balance capacity utilization, provide a socioeconomically diverse school-based population, and identify underutilized schools for repurposing,” according to the March agenda item.
“We’re just trying to maximize all our facilities,” said superintendent Addison Davis. Once the report is complete, the district will gather community input and the board will decide which of its recommendations to adopt.
Also Tuesday, Davis received a vote of confidence from the board, which granted him a contract extension by a unanimous vote.
Hired in early 2020, Davis earns $310,000 a year under a contract that would have expired in December 2023. The new contract lasts until June 2027.
Starting in 2023, Davis will be eligible for a 4 percent annual raise in years when the board also approves raises for its other 12-month employees.
The approval followed deliberation and some hesitation. Board member Jessica Vaughn questioned whether the move was financially responsible, given uncertainties surrounding funding and teacher pay. Member Melissa Snively said she would have liked more transparency in the negotiations. Member Karen Perez raised concerns about workplace morale.
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Board member Henry Washington and chairperson Nadia Combs argued in favor of doing what they could for stability at a time of superintendent shortages across the nation. “People are walking away from education at every single level,” Combs said.
Board members also praised Davis, saying he led effectively during the pandemic, improved his relationships with principals after a rocky first year, and has found ways to turn a chronic budget deficit into a surplus.