Families in Hillsborough County will soon have a chance to weigh in on the sensitive topic of new school boundaries.
Five virtual town hall meetings are planned from Sept. 12 to 16, all at 6 p.m. Members of the public also are being invited to complete an online survey that asks them to state their overall concerns and bring up any issues at specific schools.
The school district estimates 24% of its schools are overcrowded and 44% are under-enrolled.
“These disparities have a trickle-down effect on the operational and maintenance budget of the school system, including providing transportation services to students,” superintendent Addison Davis wrote in a letter to parents.
Attendance zones have existed unchanged in many neighborhoods for decades, some created when the district was emerging from court-ordered desegregation around the turn of the century.
But neighborhoods have changed since then, with rapid growth in the southeastern part of the county.
Privately managed charter schools have lured 16 percent of students away from district schools. That, combined with families turning to other options like magnet schools and state scholarships to private schools, have left Hillsborough with many campuses that are largely vacant and, in some cases, racially and economically segregated.
The vacancies create inefficiency at a time when the district is under pressure to stretch every dollar. And the system includes dozens of magnet schools, some more successful than others, that incur millions of dollars in busing costs.
Davis suggested a sweeping look at school utilization in early 2021 as a way to help cure the district’s budgetary crisis. At the time he wanted to consider closing, consolidating or “repurposing” some under-enrolled schools. He said he would present a preliminary plan to the School Board that spring.
But his words were met with sharp criticism from people who did not want to see any schools closed, and from charter school opponents who pointed out that state law gives charters a claim on any school the district deems surplus.
Davis later said it was best to tackle the issue in a more thoughtful, deliberate manner. The district hired WXY Studio, a New York consulting firm that has done similar work for school districts in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The firm is being paid $567,122, according to board documents. Its findings are expected in January.
Any changes approved would begin to take affect in the 2024-25 school year.
School Board members said they understand the anxiety the project is likely to create. In urban areas, families who have seen multiple generations attend the same elementary school will not want to see it close, even if it has empty seats.
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“There are some schools that it would be hard to close because of the tradition of those schools,” said board vice chairperson Henry “Shake” Washington, who represents the central Tampa district with the largest number of under-enrolled schools. Even combining schools that are near each other can create a hardship for parents with limited transportation, he said.
In the suburbs, big high schools might lose some of their neighborhoods. Despite the need to even out enrollment, chairperson Nadia Combs of northwest Hillsborough said she is bracing for pushback if families are told their children are no longer assigned to popular Steinbrenner High.
Both members said they are determined to stop any district buildings from being given to charter schools. But neither could guarantee that a school will not be converted for another use, such as an office or a preschool.
Just days after Hillsborough’s school tax referendum failed at the polls, Combs said, “we need to continue to let the community know that we are fiscally responsible and that every dollar counts. We’re going to have to make some hard decisions, but we will make those decisions in the best interests of students.”
Combs is due to step down as board chairperson in November. By tradition, Washington would succeed her.
But Washington said Friday that he is not sure if he wants to be chairperson, in part because of the possibility that schools might be disrupted.
“I was raised in that area,” he said. “It doesn’t make anybody happy when you make a decision like that. But it’s something you have to live with.”
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