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Hillsborough school board voices doubts about new attendance boundary plan

Some say the plan hurts minority students, others argue it will not save enough money.
 
Hillsborough County School Board members meet in a workshop to discuss new attendance boundaries for district schools on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023.
Hillsborough County School Board members meet in a workshop to discuss new attendance boundaries for district schools on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]
Published Feb. 13, 2023|Updated Feb. 13, 2023

Hillsborough County School Superintendent Addison Davis does not yet have the school board support he needs for his plan to change attendance boundaries, despite compromises he offered to quell opposition.

Discussing the issue in a workshop Monday, two of the seven board members — Henry “Shake” Washington and Karen Perez — said they oppose the plan because of what they called a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic students.

Two more members — Jessica Vaughn and Patti Rendon ― found fault with the data, methodology and scope of the project, and said it needs more work. “We’re just not there yet,” said Rendon, whose electoral district in East Hillsborough has numerous schools that are filled beyond capacity.

Board Chairperson Nadia Combs and member Lynn Gray said Davis’ proposal doesn’t cut enough costs, although they said they would consider his plan or a variation of it.

Stacy Hahn was the only member who said she supported Davis’ new version. Hahn’s district includes South Tampa, where parents and homeowners mounted a spirited campaign to keep their neighborhoods zoned for prestigious Plant High School.

A sign protesting an early version of the Hillsborough County school district's plan to change attendance boundaries is seen in front of a South Tampa home on Jan. 5, 2023. Many residents in that area were critical of a provision that would transfer some students zoned for Coleman Middle and Plant High to Pierce Middle and Jefferson High. That part of the plan has since been revised.
A sign protesting an early version of the Hillsborough County school district's plan to change attendance boundaries is seen in front of a South Tampa home on Jan. 5, 2023. Many residents in that area were critical of a provision that would transfer some students zoned for Coleman Middle and Plant High to Pierce Middle and Jefferson High. That part of the plan has since been revised. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

But, near the end of the three-hour meeting, Hahn suggested that she and the Plant group are now being singled out for criticism. “There seems to be a lot of hyper focus from some board members on 130 families from Plant High School,” she said as a group from South Tampa sat in the audience.

“And I’m not going to let board members sit here today and make families feel ashamed for advocating for their child.”

It was not clear whether the board will hold another workshop or if Davis will try to satisfy the member concerns in one-on-one conversations. A second round of community meetings is scheduled on the evenings of Feb. 20, 22 and 23. The current plan is to have the board vote on Feb. 28 and March 9.

But there already have been delays in the project, which seeks to cure the inefficiencies of running schools that are, in some cases, more than half empty.

Community meetings that were envisioned in the summer were postponed as district leaders campaigned for a special property tax to support school expenses including teacher pay. That measure was narrowly defeated in the August primary, leaving Hillsborough at a disadvantage now that Pinellas and Pasco have such taxes in place.

When the boundary study got back on track, there were hopes of a school board vote this month and implementation in August of this year.

In an effort to gather more input and support, Davis postponed the workshop and votes for two weeks. He also delayed implementation of the plan by a year to give families the time they customarily receive to adjust and consider options for their children.

The boundary plan addresses problems that vary greatly depending on location, making consensus especially difficult.

In Washington’s District 5, where the largest number of students would be affected by Davis’ plan, three schools would be closed and put to another use. A fourth, Jennings Middle, would be partly repurposed. And schools outside his district with large minority enrollment — Adams Middle and Cleveland Elementary — would also be closed, although Davis hopes to reopen Adams in a couple of years.

Hillsborough County School Board member Henry “Shake” Washington.
Hillsborough County School Board member Henry “Shake” Washington. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“When you are moving kids around, you are not moving them to get a better education sometimes,” Washington said. “You’re moving kids around for what you need at a period of time. Black and brown students are the ones always being moved. That’s unacceptable.”

Vaughn, who represents the Carrollwood area, Lutz and New Tampa, restated the frustration she has had with WXY Studio, the district’s consulting firm. She asked for a more thoughtful deliberation with more information about the financial implications, and whether children will be able to walk to their schools.

“I’m not going to rush a plan willy-nilly that’s not going to help our students,” she said.

To Rendon, the problem was uncertainty about whether Davis’ plan can go far enough to alleviate crowding in the fast-growing East Hillsborough suburbs.

“I still have 14 schools that are over capacity,” she said. “That’s not acceptable. We are not there yet. We are 100 percent not there yet.”

Hillsborough County School Board member Patti Rendon.
Hillsborough County School Board member Patti Rendon. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Gray and Combs said they would like to see a plan that is closer to one of the earlier recommendations from WXY. They reminded the others, as Davis did, that the district’s financial troubles have stopped the administration from paying teachers their scheduled raises.

“We are losing teachers every day,” Combs said. “We’re losing bus drivers, we’re losing front office staff.... We’re losing principals who are going to Pinellas County because they can get paid more.”

Hahn did not disagree that money is tight. But, she asked, “Do you really think 130 families out of Plant High School is going to solve our financial crisis?”

Combs later picked up on the issue of South Tampa parents’ unwillingness to send their children to Jefferson High, which is in Combs’ electoral district.

“How about my school, Jefferson?” she said. “How offended they must be — the students who are there, the teachers who are there, the principals and the vice principals. And people think it is such a horrible high school? It’s an amazing high school. What do you think that community feels like?”

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