A week before an important vote on school boundary changes and closures, some members of the Hillsborough County School Board indicated Tuesday that they might not be ready to take action.
Board member Lynn Gray, alarmed by pending legislation that would expand the state’s school voucher system, said she fears enrollment and funding levels could drop dramatically, making it impossible at this time to make an informed decision on new attendance boundaries.
A special meeting and first vote is scheduled for Feb. 28 on sweeping changes that are designed to cure both crowding at some schools and vacancies at others, while also saving costs.
“If we really want to be proactive and more realistic, my recommendation would be to put off this redistricting, reboundary-ing, until we know for sure in May what we’re dealing with, with these vouchers,” Gray said. “Because that’s going to change every scenario known to mankind.”
The nonprofit Florida Policy Institute has warned that House Bill 1, which greatly expands scholarships for private schools and home schooling, could redirect as much as $4 billion in taxpayer funds away from traditional public schools.
Already, Gray said, staff are being invited to enroll their children in private schools, a sector that is expected to grow dramatically. “These requests will reflect a movement of students that will be extremely severe,” she said.
Board member Jessica Vaughn raised different concerns. Vaughn has warned for months that the boundary project did not solicit enough input from board members and the community. At Tuesday’s board meeting, she said no one can predict how many students will be chased away by decisions that prove harmful and unpopular.
“We need more time to talk about this as a board,” she said.
Potential savings from the boundary changes range from $12 million to $31 million, depending on whether the board adopts a compromise plan offered in recent weeks by Superintendent Addison Davis or returns to one of the more aggressive plans developed by a consulting firm.
“I don’t think there is a board member up here who doesn’t value $6 million,” or even $5 million, Vaughn said. However, “if we are saving that $5 million, but we are impacting so many students and families who leave our district because of those decisions, those have repercussions too.”
Stacy Hahn, the only one of seven board members who has come out strongly in support of Davis’ recommendation, asked for financial information to validate the potential savings in the earlier plans.
Hahn also asked: “Are we offering the very best options so that we are the first choice when it comes to educating somebody’s child? If you look at where families who are leaving to use scholarship dollars, it’s more than likely in areas where schools are habitually under-performing.”
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Davis emphasized the need to make the system more efficient.
No one will know the full impact of House Bill 1 until students are counted on the 10th day of the new school year, he said. But “we know that we have to do something. I urge this board to take action. Do not pause. Do not put this off.”
The boundary project “will be a multiphase process,” Davis said. “HB 1 will potentially further us to have more conversations about underutilized schools. We also have to think about what we’re going to do about magnet schools that are underutilized.”
And Davis said he wants to look for new ways to keep students in the district schools.
“We have to be able to put money into a marketing firm to come help us to be able to market our school district and recruit kids and tell our story,” he said.