Hillsborough struggles to balance wide-ranging enrollment numbers

A number of Hillsborough schools will open well above capacity this week. Officials are working on a strategy.
Published August 5 2016
Updated August 5 2016


Alonso High School is bursting at the seams.

When the new school year begins on Wednesday, Alonso is projected to have an enrollment of 2,876 students, although principal Kenneth Hart, drawing from his career experience of unanticipated consequences, said it's realistic to count on 2,950 or more.

Alonso's $7 million expansion — a new, 12-classroom wing, a larger cafeteria and a renovated main office — was necessary simply to keep pace with the explosive growth.

Hart said projections have 800 ninth-graders entering Alonso, an unusually high number considering the school's 660-student graduating class June 10.

With housing developments, apartment complexes and townhouses sprouting like weeds on steroids throughout northwest Hillsborough County — and with nearby Sickles and Steinbrenner high schools hovering near or above capacity — elected officials, principals and parents are asking some hard questions.

Is it time to consider building a new high school? If so, where is the land? More importantly, where is the money? To acquire land and build a campus to accommodate about 2,000 students would require approximately $100 million.

Should school boundaries be reworked countywide, taking advantage of vacant seats in other areas?

Are double sessions inevitable in future years?

There are no surefire solutions but a new high school should be considered, said Susan Valdes, the Hillsborough County School District School-Board member for District 1, which includes Alonso and Sickles high schools.

"We do not at this moment have a parcel of land for a new high school,'' Valdes said. "But that doesn't change the need. We're going to need a new high school in this area, absolutely. Ultimately, I don't think there's a way around that.''

According to the school district's long-range work plan, the county's next high school will be needed in south Hillsborough County between 2020 and 2025.

"Right now, the model seems to be not to acquire more land, but to add on facilities to the current school,'' Sickles principal Jake Russell said. "That's what's happening at Alonso. I think unless we all start growing by hundreds and hundreds of kids, we can make it work.''

Some parents are more skeptical.

"I have concerns when I see all the building of townhouses and apartments going up around the area,'' said Westchase resident Tonya Sanchez, whose son, James, is an Alonso junior. "I don't see how we're going to get around not building one."

Sanchez added, "We have our temporary fix with the renovation at Alonso, but what if that isn't enough? I think the school board might have to be more proactive.''

The school board already is talking about other measures.

There seems to be space in high schools such as Freedom, at 79 percent of capacity, King, 76 percent; Armwood, 74 percent, Brandon, 73 percent; Chamberlain, 72 percent; Jefferson, 72 percent; Middleton, 71 percent; and Spoto, 70 percent.

Yet all but Jefferson are across town from Alonso, near or east of Interstate 75.

Retiring School Board member Carol Kurdell said the district should redraw boundaries for the entire county, something that hasn't been done in more than a decade.

"You have to look at the whole county because the whole county is shifting,'' Kurdell said. "I've said it for years … and of course nobody in administration ever wanted to touch it because it's such an emotional issue.

"It's the only thing that makes sense to me. That will give you some relief. I know parents won't be happy. Nobody will be happy. But at this point in time, we have empty seats in places that need to be filled. We've got schools that are running over.''

Kurdell is correct on a few points.

It's an emotional issue. And parents are reluctant to embrace such change.

"I think you should keep communities together,'' said Westchase resident Sue Vidmar, whose son, Justin, is an Alonso senior. "I think there are other alternatives.''

Valdes said she favors reworking school boundaries throughout the county, not as a quick fix, but as a thoughtful, mindful process that takes into account everyone's best interests.

"There's no doubt, doing something like that can be like herding cats,'' Valdes said. "It's making tough decisions, but that's where the leadership has to come in.

"It's like going to the oral surgeon and getting your wisdom teeth pulled, all four at one time; one pain and that's it. Before we bond ourselves into more land for another school, which I think will need to happen eventually, we must be certain we're using our current resources to the maximum.''

Meantime, principal Hart said, Alonso is well-equipped to handle what could be Hillsborough County's largest enrollment.

"Things will be fine,'' Hart said. "We have what we need. The educational program is sound. We are not going on split sessions. We're not anywhere near making that kind of decision."

"People really shouldn't be concerned about any changes in the quality of the program, the environment, the safety, the passing in the classes, how lunch will be handled. We have prepared for this.''

As for the future, given more expected growth?

It's still the great unknown.

Contact Joey Johnston at hillsnews@tampabay.com.