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Hillsborough faces questions, critics as school boundary meetings approach

A week-long series of public forums is scheduled for a plan that will affect thousands.
 
A sign in front of a South Tampa home on Thursday, January 5, 2022, protests a proposal to change the attendance boundaries for Plant High and Coleman Middle School. Public forums on the Hillsborough County school district's plan to change boundaries are scheduled for Jan. 9-13.
A sign in front of a South Tampa home on Thursday, January 5, 2022, protests a proposal to change the attendance boundaries for Plant High and Coleman Middle School. Public forums on the Hillsborough County school district's plan to change boundaries are scheduled for Jan. 9-13. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 6, 2023|Updated Jan. 6, 2023

It was shortly before Christmas when Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez, in a radio show, took aim at the school district’s ongoing study of attendance boundaries.

In an interview with WTMP-AM guest host Robin Lockett, Perez said the project — intended to improve efficiency in a cash-strapped school system — mirrors the way governments around the nation are disrupting the education of Black and Hispanic children.

The two women cast the project as racially insensitive, from the choice of schools the district might close to the locations of public meetings.

“They don’t close white schools,” Perez said. “They close our schools. So we have to ask: Why are the Black and Latino communities forever targeted?”

Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez.
Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

No one thought it would be easy to redraw attendance boundaries for nearly 200,000 students in schools that stretch from Westchase to Plant City. As Superintendent Addison Davis has said repeatedly, many people understand the need for updated boundaries, but few will welcome change to their own child’s school.

With a School Board decision six weeks away, that theory is being tested in real time.

Among the options presented by a consultant is one that would uproot as many as 24,000 students from their current schools next fall. And concerns are not just coming from urban neighborhoods.

In South Tampa, where homes sell for millions of dollars, there is organized opposition to plan options that would move some students from Plant High and Coleman Middle School, which are A-rated but crowded, to Jefferson High and Pierce Middle, which have C grades but room to spare.

In both segments of the community, critics lament what they see as a lack of public engagement before the plans were drawn up.

The exercise is also putting in sharp focus the differences between Hillsborough’s successful schools, which often serve affluent communities, and its less successful schools, which have lost enrollment as families seek other options.

Some of the South Tampa parents, in an effort to strengthen their case, are studying the objective differences between schools — for example, the number of Advanced Placement courses that are offered at Plant, as compared to Jefferson. In both the WTMP radio discussion and interviews with the South Tampa group, critics ask: Why can’t schools offer the same quality of education to all students?

The conversations are not always cordial.

“If you go on the Nextdoor app or the Facebook app, there are people who really go over the top,” said Gerald Boyle, a military contractor with two school-age children who is part of the South Tampa effort. “It’s almost like they’re trolling, saying, ‘You’re entitled’ or ‘What makes your kids better than other kids?’”

Added his wife, Shawn Boyle: “I wish this wasn’t a fight. I wish every school was equal. I think every school should be equal.”

Perez noted that the 12 schools under consideration for “repurposing” — a term the district prefers to “closing,” as the buildings will remain in use — are largely minority. Only 2% of children at Just Elementary are white. Only 8% are white at Adams Middle and Cleveland Elementary.

What Perez did not say is that the 12 schools have lost support in the communities they serve. It’s a phenomenon that can be measured by “stay rates,” defined as the percentage of public school children who live in a school’s attendance zone and stay at that school instead of seeking other options.

Stay rates range from 36% at McLane Middle — which is in Brandon, but has many students bused from East Tampa — to 62% at Morgan Woods Elementary in Town ‘N Country. Those rates are in the 90s at South Tampa schools such as Plant and Coleman.

School Board Chairperson Nadia Combs noted the many alternatives families are finding, from independent charter and parochial schools to home schooling. “It’s so sad to make this racial when families are sometimes choosing different options for education,” she said.

Ten public meetings on the project are planned at these high schools: Middleton and Plant City on Jan. 9, Sumner and Brandon on Jan. 10, Plant and Leto on Jan. 11, Gaither and Sickles on Jan. 12, and Wharton and Bloomingdale on Jan. 13, all from 5:30 to 8 p.m.

Perez noted most of the meeting locations are outside the city, though urban schools are more likely to be affected. She said parents at Morgan Woods, which she visited recently, were surprised to learn their school might be repurposed, but there were no plans to hold a meeting there. “‘Why not?’” a parent asked her. “‘Half of us walk to the school.’”

District spokesperson Tanya Arja explained: “We set the meetings in every part of the county so that all parents and community members have an opportunity to go.” In a later statement, she listed the schools that might be closed and plotted the distance between each one and the closest meeting.

The district and its consultant, WXY Studio, are asking residents to use WXY’s interactive website to post their comments. But not everyone likes that format. The Hillsborough County Council of PTA/PTSA recently criticized the district for the way it organized the meetings, where participants will ask their questions one-on-one.

“This kind of set up is not what we consider to be authentic community education and engagement,” the PTA group wrote in its statement. “It limits who has information and doesn’t provide context or public information for the community to come up with questions.”

Nor is it easy to get School Board members to engage with the public. Gerald Boyle, the South Tampa parent, said when he sent emails to all seven members, Combs thanked him for his comments and directed him to the school boundary website. “It’s almost like that was an auto reply,” he said.

As Boyle sees it, “our School Board should have been out there, talking about this and engaging the community and having town halls, saying, ‘This is what I know now. What is your feedback?’”

Responding to the PTA statement, Arja said the meeting format makes sense because most people will want to know about their individual schools and situations.

But Combs said she is taking the criticism to heart. She is making the rounds to resident groups in her northwestern Hillsborough electoral district and she believes other members are doing the same.

She insisted it is still early enough to gather public opinion before the School Board votes in February. And she said Davis assured her that he and other staff will attend the high school meetings and take general questions from the audience.

Hillsborough County School Board Chairperson Nadia Combs, in a private home in Keystone, answers questions and defends her support of widespread boundary changes on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.
Hillsborough County School Board Chairperson Nadia Combs, in a private home in Keystone, answers questions and defends her support of widespread boundary changes on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]

“We need to do a boundary change and we need to close some schools,” Combs said. “We can’t continue running schools that are underutilized.”

She said in the current inefficient system, the district cannot pay its employees competitive wages. “It doesn’t matter what kind of organization we have,” she said. “If we don’t have teachers in front of our students, none of it matters.”

Perez returned to the radio show for a second appearance during the New Year weekend. This time she was joined by Susan Valdes, a state lawmaker who used to serve on the School Board.

Valdes said she is teaming with Perez to improve community outreach.

“We are having a meeting at a baseball park right by Morgan Woods Elementary School,” she said. “Because parents do not know what to expect. And I believe this is a done deal.”