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As Hillsborough considers new school boundaries, many families aren’t tuned in

Those near underused urban schools ripe for closure haven’t been as involved as families from crowded suburban schools.
Respondents to a survey about school use in Hillsborough County say McLane Middle School has a population that lives too far away from the Brandon campus.
Respondents to a survey about school use in Hillsborough County say McLane Middle School has a population that lives too far away from the Brandon campus.
Published Nov. 2, 2022|Updated Nov. 2, 2022

A process to change school boundaries in Hillsborough County is getting relatively low participation from families likely to be affected most, a new consultant’s report indicates.

Although schools with large numbers of minority students are the more obvious candidates to be closed as part of the process, 62% of the residents answering surveys in the project’s first phase were white.

That’s in a district where white students make up 31% of the enrollment. There was little participation in north and central Tampa, according to the report, even though those communities have the biggest share of Hillsborough’s underenrolled schools.

District officials are planning a series of public meetings in early December to engage more people.

Henry “Shake” Washington, the School Board member who represents District 5 in north and central Tampa, said he noticed the numbers and was troubled by them.

“This was not communicated well enough, but we have to do a better job,” he said. “We may have to knock on doors, talk to people at church. We have to make sure constituents come out and engage.”

The people getting involved in the study’s first phase were far more likely to live in east Hillsborough, where many described crowded conditions at Lithia’s Barrington Middle School and Newsome High and Sumner High in Riverview.

Despite this widespread concern about crowding, parents typically said they did not want to change school attendance zones.

Families have cited crowded conditions at Newsome High.
Families have cited crowded conditions at Newsome High. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

In Original Carrollwood, parents are continuing to push to add grades 6, 7 and 8 to Carrollwood Elementary School as an alternative to D-rated Adams Middle.

WXY Studios, the district’s consulting firm, released the report as part of a study that will suggest ways to maximize efficiency. Much of the motivation is financial; district leaders say it does not make sense to keep schools a third- to half-empty while others in high-growth areas are bursting.

Related: Hillsborough ponders another K-8 school, but questions loom over the impact

They are avoiding direct discussion of “closing” schools, using the term “repurpose” instead. That’s partly because Florida law allows charter operators to take possession of school buildings that are deemed surplus. But no one has ruled out the possibility that an underenrolled school might find a new use as an office building, preschool or adult education center.

The consultants based their report on a week of virtual meetings in September. District leaders hope to see recommendations from WXY by late December or early January. Boundary changes could happen as early as August 2023, a move likely to disrupt long-standing attendance patterns that many families have come to count on.

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Any changes would require School Board approval.

Related: Changing Hillsborough’s school boundaries: Good idea or too disruptive?

Participants in this first phase of the project mentioned other schools in addition to the crowded suburban campuses. They said McLane Middle School is too far away from its students and parents. And they said Adams Middle should be considered for repurposing.

Addressing the School Board on Tuesday, superintendent Addison Davis described this schedule of events:

On the week of Nov. 28, there will be a virtual webinar to discuss the recent report and to demonstrate a boundary scenario tool that members of the public can use to explore various rezoning options.

During the same week, WXY will hold virtual meetings with 10 to 20 organizations.

From Dec. 5 to 9, the consultants will hold information sessions in person at locations throughout the district. The schedule of events has not yet been released.